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Local water districts prioritize preparation amidst California's drought crisis

Ava Sarnowski

Valley News Staff

As drought conditions in Southern California continue to worsen, local water districts are prioritizing preparations to meet the needs of residents and businesses throughout the Temecula Valley and surrounding areas.

Darcy Burke, president of Elsinore Valley Municipal Water District, is responsible for managing water supply that is “not on the backs” of her customers. As a water policymaker, her job is to figure out how to meet the needs of her region and develop new supplies that can do so reliably, sustainably, resiliently and affordably.

She said when she goes in to do projects, such as The Doheny Ocean Desalination Project in Dana Point, she was blocked due to opposition to those types of projects.

“It takes 20 years to move that project even though it is environmentally sensitive, there are people who don’t want growth,” Burke said. “There have been no investments in drinking water.”

According to Burke, the many statements saying it is the driest year on record are not accurate. “The driest two years on record were 1976 and 1977,” she said. “The difference is how we managed our water supply infrastructure in 1976 and 1977 versus now. I would say that the precipitation last year, which was below normal, but out of all the years was probably the 20th driest year.”

Water years, she said, run from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 annually.

Burke said while the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project are federal projects, her department manages the reservoirs that are meant for drinking water and additional water use. The purpose of those reservoirs, she said, has shifted due both court rulings and policy decisions.

According to Burke, water from those reservoirs is now used for the environment and urban users. She said that 10-percent of the entire state’s water portfolio is used by urban users, while agriculture users come second.

“Agriculture has now cut back extremely, since they cannot access their groundwater because of the Groundwater Sustainable Management Act regulations and curtailment,” Burke said. “Their surface water has been cut off, and they have taken the biggest hit out of everyone. They do not use 80-percent of the water, and they use that water to grow food.”

She said the remaining water is used for the environment, which is unmetered, unmonitored, unmeasured and maybe has no cutbacks.

Burke said there are certain areas of both Southern and Northern California that are 100-percent dependent on state project water and that the state is giving water to those communities that don’t have access to water any other way.

“Even though we are contracted with the state, for them to deliver a certain amount of water, that particular amount of water we're getting for health and safety for those communities, we have to pay back,” she said. “The governor is looking to see what our water usage is, to see if we have decreased to what his request was. But let me tell you about his request. He asked for a 20-percent reduction from our baseline, and he’s considering our baseline for 2020.”

Using numbers from 2020, which was a “very wet year” and where water use was automatically lower because of the rain is problematic, Burke said.

“To reference a wet year when our water consumption was already extremely low and now you tell people to cut their usage by another 20-percent. It’s extremely difficult to do that,” she said.

Burke said that people within the district won’t be able to meet the governor’s reduction expectations, and the financial penalties will come upon water agencies. She said EVMWD decided to not implement a drought surcharge on their customers.

“If they stay within budget, they’re not paying a penalty,” she said. “Right now they go without a budget, then they will pay a penalty. But they would have anyway.

“What the governor thinks is the best way to manage water supply is by having urban water users bear the brunt in a financial way,” she said. “So you have inflation going through the roof, you have people struggling to make ends meet, and now we’re going to put a financial burden on making water service extremely expensive for areas that are more affluent.”

EVMWD is keeping focused on preparation for the future, EVMWD community affairs supervisor Bonnie Woodrome said.

According to Woodrome, EVMWD has “made numerous innovative and groundbreaking water investments to ensure water efficiency.”

Their customers, she said, have also been granted access to AquaHawk, their free and advanced metering system. The program aims to help customers monitor their water usage online, while also saving both water and money.

“Meters are equipped with this technology, and it can be accessed from your computer, or phone, or at our website,” she said.

EVMWD continues to work towards optimizing water systems and is encouraging customers to help with efficiency through taking advantage of their rebates.

“Right now, residential customers can replace their thirsty lawns with a more California-friendly landscape and receive a $2.25 per square foot rebate,” Woodrome said. “Our water efficiency team is here to help with any questions customers might have when it comes to improving efficiencies.”

Eastern Municipal Water District also recognizes how serious California’s ongoing drought and its undetermined time frame is, impacting the State Water Project and the Colorado River systems, EMWD Public Affairs Officer Kevin Pearson said.

“EMWD has been proactive in preparing for these types of challenges,” Pearson said.

“We have invested heavily in local water supply sources and offer a wide range of customer-focused programs to assist our customers in reducing their water use. EMWD has also kicked off a public education campaign titled, ‘This Is How I Save Water.’”

Pearson said the campaign contains simple ways on how to save water, such as installing a drip system or choosing to water between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. to minimize evaporation. Their customers, he said, have shown to be fully responsive in “prioritizing efficiency.”

According to Pearson, EMWD customers have reduced per-capita water usage by more than 40-percent over the past two decades alone.

“The result is we have not had to implement more aggressive actions through our Water Shortage Contingency Plan,” he said, adding that EMWD continues to ask customers to focus efforts on outdoor water use efficiency, as nearly 60-percent of water within the service area is used for that purpose.

Other readily available resources include the Smart Irrigation Controller program, or the regional turf transformation program through SoCal Water Smart which provides rebates of up to $3 per square foot of turf removed.

“As we continue to face historic water supply challenges, making both large and small changes to your irrigation practices can go a long way in helping us all do our part to use water responsibly and save money in the process,” Joe Mouawad, general manager of EMWD said in a recent news release.

“Even a small change can result in significant savings, and EMWD is here as a resource for our customers to assist them in creating positive and lasting changes to irrigate responsibly and efficiently.”

Update from U.S. Drought Monitor

According to the statistics reported by the U.S Drought Monitor, Thursday, July 7, 100-percent of California remains abnormally dry; 99.8-percent of the state is experiencing moderate drought, while 97.8-percent is going through severe drought. The severe drought percentage was at 97.56-percent in May.

Meanwhile, the percentage of extreme drought has gone up significantly over the past three months. What was once 40.67-percent of the state, is now at 59.81-percent with 11.59-percent of California facing exceptional drought.

Lower reservoir percentages

California’s current reservoir conditions still continue to show declining numbers with most reservoirs far below capacity.

Lake Castaic’s total percentage capacity was at 45-percent in May, but that number plummeted to 34-percent as of July 7, in the most recent report issued by the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Pine Flat Lake was also at 61-percent in May, but has dropped to 43-percent and Diamond Valley Lake’s capacity percentage dipped from 68-percent to 67-percent.

Lake Shasta showed similar numbers, having dropped to 39-percent after being at 40-percent capacity in May.

San Luis Reservoir was at 46-percent in May, but has since lowered to 37-percent.

Lake Oroville has decreased to 47-percent from 54-percent in May.

As La Niña continues to push precipitation further north, drought conditions are expected to worsen, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which predicted La Niña to continue into early 2023, water officials said there is no way to predict when reservoirs or groundwater basins will refill.

For additional tips on how to save water, visit for the Fallbrook area. Also visit

Learn more about current drought conditions, the state’s response or informational resources available to the public at the state’s new drought preparedness website,

Ava Sarnowski can be reached by email at [email protected].


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