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Low groundwater levels mean water worries not behind us – Op-ed in the Riverside Press-Enterprise

A groundwater well near a field

By Jeffrey D. Armstrong

The drought emergency may be over, but our water supply worries are not.

When Gov. Jerry Brown lifted mandatory conservation orders across most of the state in April, he closed the book on a sobering chapter in California history. His action marked the end of cutbacks that began in 2014.

By winter, extreme drought turned to record rain and snow. This year, the mountains were cloaked in white, teeming rivers boosted reservoir levels, and State Water Project deliveries are the highest in more than a decade.

But don’t be fooled. Below the surface, in groundwater basins, the effects of extreme drought persist. The water held underground in layers of rock and soil serves as a water savings account for dry times. Right now, that account is low. And that means we all need to be concerned.

The problem is most pronounced in Central California. Farmers there pumped excessively from aquifers to keep crops alive during the five-year drought. Decades of overpumping have permanently reduced the aquifers’ storage capacity and caused the land to sink more than 2 feet in some places.

Local aquifers are also impacted. Levels in the Temecula Valley Groundwater Basin are 30 percent lower than normal for this time of year, despite abundant winter rains. The basin was drawn down at the peak of the drought, when imports from the State Water Project and Colorado River were limited.

Local aquifer levels are very important because the Temecula Valley basin supplies up to 40 percent of the water for 150,000 people served by Rancho California Water District.

Because local water is about one-fifth the cost of imports, this supply is what keeps the district’s rates among the lowest in the area.

The 137-square-mile basin will be recharged by rain and runoff — eventually.

Rancho California Water District uses water from Vail Lake, east of Temecula, to replenish the basin. The lake also suffered from the drought, dropping levels to just over a quarter of capacity.

That is why Rancho California Water District will remain in Stage 3c of its Water Shortage Contingency Plan. While neighboring water providers may be moving to less restrictive stages because their supply portfolio includes more of the costly imported water, it is important for Rancho California to remain vigilant so basins can recover before the next drought.

Under Stage 3c and the district’s tiered rate structure, residential and landscape customers get their full tier 1 and tier 2 efficient budgets; tier 3, the inefficient tier, is eliminated. So customers who go over their efficient budget go directly to tier 4 and pay the highest price for water.

As the weather warms, residents of Inland Southern California must remain attentive to their water consumption. The region made great strides in water conservation over the last three years, and hopefully those changes have become habit.

The winter of 2017 gave us a reprieve from drought, but we could have water shortages again next year. It is imperative that we continue making deposits into our groundwater savings accounts so when the next dry spell hits, we are ready.

Jeffrey D. Armstrong is general manager of Rancho California Water District.

Link to op-ed on Riverside Press-Enterprise web site

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