Riverside County water suppliers told the Board of Supervisors Tuesday that conservation efforts are aiding the region in weathering the current severe drought, but their future ability to meet demand will depend on new infrastructure and changes in consumption habits.

“As the watersheds dry up in the Southwest, we need to be concerned about some things,” Beaumont-Cherry Valley Water District Manager Dan Jaggers told the board during a presentation on the drought emergency. “As the drought continues, we will begin to have further restrictions. People need to know how serious this is.”

Jaggers pointed out that while reservoirs in Northern California have fallen below 40% of capacity, lakes closer to home, including Diamond Valley and Mathews, are still over 50% full. But that doesn’t mean residents should relax conservation, with the county now receiving lower volumes from the Colorado River and the State Water Project.

“None of the (water) agencies in Riverside County are currently taking State Water Project deliveries,” Perris-based Eastern Municipal Water District Manager Joe Mouawad told the board. “Last December was very wet, but the January to April period was the driest on record in the state.”

He and other presenters said storage capacity statewide has fallen far behind the times. Diamond Valley Lake adjacent to Hemet is the most recent reservoir added to the storage system anywhere in California, and that was accomplished under a local initiative supported by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California in the 1990s.

“It’s been decades since the state has been willing to make investments in (water infrastructure) in any meaningful way,” Supervisor Kevin Jeffries said. “We have to be more self-sufficient.”

Temecula-based Rancho California Water District Manager Robert Grantham agreed, saying, “We need to modernize our water system.”

He said that even as little headway is made at the state level, local efforts aimed at slashing water use have paid off.

“We’re using half the water that we used to consume in Southern California,” Grantham said. “It’s down 50% per capita compared to a decade ago.”

He credited rebates for drought-tolerant landscaping conversions and other conservation “incentives” with changing consumption habits.

Riverside-based Western Municipal Water District Manager Craig Miller echoed complaints from officials during the 2014-17 drought emergency, saying a “modern conveyance system” of transferring water in the region could solve many shortages.

“We could have moved 236,000 acre-feet of water during the December rains,” Miller said. “The water is there; we’re just not managing or engineering it appropriately. It takes a big investment.”

He said it’s disingenuous to believe that rainfall deficits are going to be a constant and worsening conundrum.

“The science isn’t indicating that,” Miller told the board. “It’s the lack of investment in infrastructure that’s impacting the economy of our state.”

The current drought began after a moderate “wet” year in 2019, according to the water agencies. In 2020 and 2021, precipitation levels were nominal.

Miller compared the current effort of encouraging allocations to widen storage capacity to “pushing a boulder up a hill.”

“The money is there. Look at the $97 billion state surplus,” he said. “Southern California still gets half of its water from imported sources. We don’t have a replacement opportunity.”

The county Executive Office delivered a report to the board indicating that county agencies have taken proactive steps to promote water conservation, even prior to the governor’s drought emergency declarations last fall and earlier this year.

According to officials, more than 500,000 square feet of nonfunctional turf has been replaced at county-owned facilities, and potable water consumption has dropped 15-20% since 2015. Additional turf replacements, as well as irrigation upgrades and landscaping conversions are in the works.

In May, some of the county’s largest water providers said they were in a better position to withstand further “dry years” than they were during the 2014-17 drought emergency.

The Palm Springs-based Desert Water Agency told City News Service that, even at current service levels, the agency has supplies available to meet customers’ needs for “decades.”

Riverside Public Utilities estimated that, based on current demand, the city has “sufficient water supply for the next five dry years and likely beyond, but continues to encourage customers to use water efficiently and adhere to the city’s prohibitions on wasteful water practices.”

Similarly, the Coachella-based Coachella Valley Water District said that the agency is “managed for long-term sustainability” thanks to “local water efficiency practices (that) are always a priority.”

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