City officials are calling on St. Helena water customers to cut their consumption by 30%, as back-to-back drought years have caused a severe water shortage.
St. Helena declared a Phase II emergency in October, and the situation has only worsened since then. Seasonal rainfall is less than one-third of average, and February was four inches dryer than normal.
The water shortage is almost critical enough to trigger a Phase III emergency, which would impose the most severe restrictions on water consumption: no outdoor irrigation and no refilling swimming pools.
“Water conservation can help us avoid a Phase III emergency,” City Manager Mark Prestwich said during Friday’s special City Council meeting.
Water customers hit the 30% target during January, February and March.
“If the public can continue to conserve at a 30% reduction each month, that will get us through,” said Interim Public Works Director John Wanger.
The problem is that water use typically starts to increase in April as the weather warms up and outdoor irrigation ramps up.
“It’s imperative that we’re thinking not just about (conserving) inside, but absolutely looking to our lawns and reducing our irrigation,” Prestwich said. “That’s going to be the key.”
Under Phase II, residential customers are limited to 65 gallons per person per day, plus 2,500 gallons per month for outdoor use. Non-residential customers must cut their consumption by 10% compared with their previous non-drought winter average.
On April 13 the council could adopt penalties for customers who exceed their water rations.
Bell Canyon Reservoir is at 43% of capacity, and at least 25% is supposed to be reserved for firefighting and to maintain water pressure. Based on typical water consumption without conservation, Bell Canyon would hit that 25% mark in September.
At the end of March, St. Helena had 466 acre-feet of water available from Bell Canyon Reservoir until it hits 25%, 90 acre-feet from the Stonebridge wells based on their estimated maximum yield, and 312 acre-feet from the City of Napa.
St. Helena’s contract with Napa requires the city to buy 600 acre-feet per fiscal year, with an option for another 200 acre-feet if Napa can provide it. But with state water allocations being cut, it’s unclear whether Napa will be willing to sell the extra 200 acre-feet, said Wanger said.
To limit the strain on Bell Canyon, the city has been drawing as much water as it can from the Stonebridge wells and the Napa water connection.
“It is a little bit of a scary scenario, honestly, because we’re pulling as much as we can as early in the year as we can to make sure we preserve as much as we can in Bell Canyon,” Wanger said. “But there is a little bit of a risk to that, for sure.”
The city’s water emergency triggers are based on stretching the water supply until Nov. 1, which is typically the beginning of the rainy season. But based on the multi-year drought, there’s no guarantee that November rains will start to replenish the reservoir.
“The problem with the ordinance is that it assumes that we’re going to have a deluge in November and December,” Councilmember Eric Hall said.
Councilmembers Lester Hardy called that “a major structural flaw in the ordinance.” He said the city’s projections have to consider the possibility that the next rainy season will be just as dry as this one.
“My biggest concern isn’t where are we going to be November 1, 2021,” Hardy said. “It’s where are we going to be April 1, 2022.”
“We need to have that outcome in view when making decisions this summer about how much conservation we need to achieve in order to have enough water next April to get through the summer of 2022.”
The drought isn’t the only factor that has stressed St. Helena’s water system. Firefighters drew an unknown amount of water from Bell Canyon Reservoir, city fire hydrants and residential pools to fight the Glass Fire.
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