By Bettina Boxall
April 13, 2015

Southern California’s water wholesaler Tuesday is poised to impose a 15% cut in water deliveries to local cities and water districts, a move that would bolster Gov. Jerry Brown’s aggressive statewide conservation effort in the fourth year of withering drought.

A committee of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California recommended the reduction Monday, which would come with penalties that would significantly increase water costs for agencies that demand more deliveries than they are allocated. The full MWD board is expected to approve the plan Tuesday.

The MWD customarily provides about half the Southland’s water supplies, and this would mark only the fourth time it has cut wholesale supplies for its 26 member agencies.

Some committee members pushed for a deeper cut of 20% to preserve Metropolitan’s dwindling reserves. But they lost to a majority who argued that it would be difficult enough for cities and local water districts to cope with a 15% loss of MWD supplies.

“Representing L.A., I don’t think we could hit [20%], and we’d get fined,” said board member Paul Koretz, a city councilman from Los Angeles, where residents have already reduced usage by 10% in recent years.

But Keith Lewinger, a board member from the San Diego County Water Authority, said the staff was making risky assumptions about MWD’s ability to supplement its water supply this year.

Without a 20% reduction, he said, “I’m concerned we’re going to deplete our savings account to a dangerous level.”

The move comes as one of the most severe droughts in modern California history persists. Irrigation deliveries have been slashed and farmers expect to idle more than 500,000 acres of cropland this year. Groundwater levels in some parts of the San Joaquin Valley have sunk to record lows as growers drill more and deeper wells. Some small communities dependent on local sources have run out of water.

Although major reservoirs in Northern California hold more water than they did a year ago, the Sierra Nevada snowpack that normally provides the state with about a third of its water supply hit a record low for April 1.

Metropolitan, which has a 37-member board, sells water imported from Northern California and the Colorado River to cities and regional agencies that in turn supply hundreds of local districts that provide water to residential and commercial customers.

The MWD reductions will take the form of allocations. Member agencies that need more than their allotment will have to pay punitive surcharges that would make the additional water as much as four times more expensive than the base cost.

Although the rationing is intended to reduce MWD deliveries by 15% overall, that will not translate into the same level of cutbacks for each district. Rather, individual allocations will be made according to a complicated formula.

A 15% drop in deliveries would conserve about 300,000 acre-feet of water, slowing the drawdown of Metropolitan’s dwindling reserves. One acre-foot of water is nearly 326,000 gallons, or enough to supply two households for one year.

MWD began the drought in 2012 with record amounts of water stored in groundwater banks and regional reservoirs. By July 1, when the reductions would take effect, staff projects those reserves will have fallen from 2.7 million acre-feet to slightly more than 1 million acre-feet.

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