Nearing the end of a third straight winter that has failed to deliver needed precipitation, and with reserves dwindling, the Metropolitan Water District expects it will have to cut allocations to its member agencies, Chairman Randy Record said Friday.
"We're coming to the point where we're going to have to make some big decisions that really impact people," said Record.
The Metropolitan board is expected to vote next month on adopting a plan. The level of the cut has not been determined, but is expected to be in range of 10-20 percent, according to Record. It would be the first cut since the drought of 2009.
For more than a century, semiarid Southern California has relied on augmenting its limited water supplies with imports from outside the region. Metropolitan serves as the wholesale supplier of water imported from the Colorado River and from Northern California via the State Water Project. Its 26 member agencies include the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
Most member agencies have additional water sources beyond what Metropolitan supplies, so the impact of the MWD allocation cut would vary between agencies. However, local sources of water have also been stressed, not only by lack of rain and mountain snowfall, but also by record temperatures.
To make the region more drought resilient, two decades ago Metropolitan constructed a massive reservoir in Diamond Valley near Hemet. Largely because of its reserve supply, Southern California so far has been less directly affected by the drought than much of the rest of the state.
But now much of the insurance account has been consumed — Diamond Valley is down to 48 percent of capacity at the end of the typical rainy season.
"We're getting close to that critical range," said Record, noting the MWD must keep a reserve for unexpected catastrophes such as a major earthquake that could sever aqueducts.
A year ago January, when Governor Jerry Brown issued the drought proclamation, he asked Californias to cut back water usage 20 percent voluntarily. Some individual water districts have also set target reductions for their customers, and in some cases reinforced the targets with tier rates that price water higher above certain consumption levels.
A study of tiered pricing found it responsible for a 10-15 percent cut in consumption by customers of the Eastern Municipal Water District in Riverside County, said study author Kenneth Baerenklau, Associate professor of Public Policy at UC Riverside.
Eastern Municipal customers have continued to conserve enough that in recent years the district has not required its full allocation from MWD, and may not need to cut further, depending on where the MWD board sets allocations next month.
The utility is already meeting "Level Two" allocation, said Jolene Walsh, director of public and governmental affairs.
"If higher, we may have to re-evaluate and ask customers to conserve more," Walsh said.
For residents who have already made significant cuts, reducing water usage another 10 to 20 percent may be difficult.
"We can't because we've done it," said Laura Monroy of Lake Matthews. She and husband Julio Monroy said their home does not have lawn, and all of their plants are drought tolerant. He suggested saving water used to irrigate large scale municipal lawns.
In 2009, the city of Los Angeles adopted a water conservation ordinance that remains in effect. It includes pricing water in two tiers. The board of the DWP may consider adding additional tiers, said communications director Joe Ramallo.
Tier pricing is by its nature more complicated and requires more sophisticated tracking and billing systems. At least one district seeking to adopt it has run into a legal challenge. But given its potential for rewarding water saving, Prof. Baerenklau said he expects tier rates will become more widespread — especially if there is no relief from drought conditions.