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El Dorado Irrigation District better poised for drought than other water agencies

Local water officials calling for voluntary cutbacks as Jenkinson Reservoir sits at 66 percent capacity
By: Art Garcia, Telegraph Correspondent
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EL DORADO HILLS, CA - Some Northern California cities and counties responded to one of the driest years ever recorded in the state even before last week’s official emergency drought declaration by Governor Jerry Brown calling for emergency voluntary water conservation of up to 20 percent.

Not among them so far is El Dorado County, blessed with an integrated water supply system with multiple sources for serving the county’s 40,000 accounts.

The city of Folsom last month ordered residents to cut water consumption by 20 percent and restricted homeowners to watering lawns to two days a week between 10 p.m. and 10 a.m. The city of Sacramento also ordered a mandatory 20 percent reduction.

EID’s current reaction to the drought is to call for customers to voluntarily conserve water. Mandatory conservation could come if the drought extends through the winter.

“We have the operational flexibility to move water around from our high Sierra lakes’ internal reservoirs and hold water there until needed,” said Mary Lynn Carlton, director of communications and community relations at the EID’s main office in Placerville.

“That’s exactly what we did,” she said. “We topped off Jenkinson Lake at Pollock Pines a while ago with water from some of the high Sierra lakes we have, like Echo Lake, Caples Lake and Silver Lake.”

That, Carlton added, “doesn’t mean we’re just going to sit on our hands and not do anything. We have a really robust drought plan that was developed in 2008, with an action plan that was updated in 2012.”

EID is monitoring drought conditions in the county closely, with an eye to the district’s drought “triggers” — data points that determine when it needs to take certain actions, such as declaring mandatory water rationing.

It’s getting that message out through billing inserts, email notices to the 30 percent of customers whose email addresses it has, and community presentations.

“There’s a likelihood of having some drought declaration in the next month or two,” said Jim Abercrombie, EID general manager.

“We’re in better shape than the valley folks who rely solely on Folsom Lake, which is only at 18 percent capacity. Some of our source facilities are up. Jenkinson Lake, for example, which supplies a good chunk of our water, is at around 66 percent capacity.”

Good news, but the lake’s historical average for this time of year is 76 percent full and because of the lack of rainfall, the reservoir’s level continues to decline when it should be in a filling period.  

Abercrombie, 59, who lives in Placerville, expects the EID board in the next several months to declare a Stage 1 drought that will ask customers for voluntary conservation up to 15 percent.

“Right now, demand is very low. We do want people to conserve but declaring a Stage 1 alert may be a little premature,” he said. “Possibly in February or March the board will consider that, depending on what kind of weather systems we get here.”

Under Stage 1, there would be no fines or other penalties, just notifications to customers to “please stop wasting water.”

“But we do have a detailed drought action plan that once the board takes formal action there could be fines,” said Abercrombie. The next-level action plan has “a very strict and stringent restriction on alternate watering days and a prohibition on water waste.”

That action could come at the first board meeting in February. “Hopefully, we won’t get there,” he said. “My guess is the first violation would result in a warning, the second in a fine.”

Stage 1, however, has a clause calling for a 15 percent surcharge to customers if deemed necessary.

EID has rights to draw water from the now nearly depleted Folsom Lake, up to 48,000 acre-feet on average. The district’s pumps at the reservoir are at 320 feet above sea level and the current water elevation is 359 feet.

Folsom supplies “probably will be reduced 25 percent to 50 percent,” Abercrombie said. “We don’t know. That’s a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation call.”

Should Folsom Lake drop below the EID’s pump level, the district could float barges with temporary pumps to take its water supply.

EID water rates are a major contention in El Dorado County but Abercrombie said EID ranks in the lower one third among water utilities in the Sacramento region.

He points out that during drought conditions customers may obtain retrofit kits at no charge to install themselves. Call the EID office to arrange for delivery (916) 965-0930).

“We also do water efficiency audits for customers for free,” he noted.

Jason Bartholomew, general manager of Suds Car Wash in El Dorado Hills, said his business has been conserving for years by using recycled water.

“Our car wash uses less water than a top-loading washing machine,” he said. “There’s no waste water that goes into storm drains and into rivers. It’s all filtered and goes back into the system at the car wash.”

Another major water user is golf courses. Jeremy Harris, general manager of the Bass Lake Golf Course in Rescue, said golf courses throughout California have been conserving water for several years.

Watering is limited to vital areas, such as tee boxes, greens and parts of fairways. If the drought lingers through the winter and it becomes “a situation where the cost of water was so great we couldn’t generate enough revenue from greens fees, we wouldn’t be able to operate the golf course any longer,” he said.

“We’re hoping for a March miracle,” said the EID’s Carlton. “Some computer models say there will be some precipitation in March, but until you see it, you just can’t believe it.

“You have to plan for the worst, and that’s why we have these drought plans.”