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Guest commentary: Water security in St. Helena

Guest commentary: Water security in St. Helena

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St. Helena has had a long and difficult relationship with the concept of water security, all too often undermining long-term decisions with short-sighted actions and policies. Today, with climate change under way, it is imperative to take the long view, and to hold to it. There are three key elements to long-term water security for St. Helena: conservation, recycling, and improved management of our water system. A look at the past reveals why these are all so important.

In 1948, St. Helena entered into a contract with the City of Napa for water from Conn Dam, and installed a 12-inch water main from St. Helena to Rutherford in order to receive this new supply. Property owners along the route were asked to connect to City water to help underwrite the cost. In 1958 the City began construction of a reservoir in Bell Canyon, and renewed its contract for water with Napa. At the same time, in order to lower rates for its residents, St. Helena repeatedly extended service outside the City limits, where it charged users significantly more than was charged inside the City.

Looking back, it is hard to understand how certain decisions were made. The 1954 Master Plan for St. Helena projected a population between 10,000 to 15,000 at build-out. Yet even the most optimistic calculations of the safe yield from Bell Canyon did not support a population that large.

Nevertheless, the extension of water service outside the City continued unabated for years. In the early 1960s, the approval of outside connections accelerated as the Council approved water service for Meadowood, the Napa Wine Co-op, Madrone Knoll and other residential subdivisions outside the city limits. Then, in 1964, alarmed by a report that demand for City water might exceed supply as early as 1968, the Council passed a resolution prohibiting new connections outside the City. Since 1990 water demand in typical years has met or exceeded the calculated sustainable yield of the City’s water supply — the result, in part, of the expansion of service outside the city decades earlier.

Our water security is not in immediate danger — among other things, there is still the opportunity to significantly reduce demand for landscape irrigation — but St. Helena is not ever likely to have more water than it has today. Even if climate change does not lower average rainfall, we are likely to experience more extremes, including longer droughts. Under these circumstances, long-term water security requires focused attention on conservation, recycling, and improved management of our water system.

In the coming decades, using conservation techniques to reduce water use in all sectors — commercial, agricultural and residential — will be essential to maintaining a sustainable standard of living together with a sustainable economy. At the same time, we must take full advantage of the tertiary-treated wastewater produced by the pending upgrades to our waste treatment plant by using as much of this treated wastewater as possible for irrigation. Furthermore, we must take better care of our water system infrastructure. Every break in a major water main results in significant water loss. In recent years as much as 15% of the total annual volume of water going into our distribution system — approximately 200 acre-feet — has been reported as “unavailable”. We need to find out how much of this unavailable water is lost to leaks in comparison with the amount unaccounted for because of missing, broken or faulty meters. To put it differently, the water reported as unavailable represents a combination of lost water and lost revenue. These are issues that must be addressed.

Accordingly, there are two things the Council can do immediately with our long-term interests in mind: implement the recommendations of the recently submitted Utility Master Plan, and direct staff to begin voluntary participation in the state’s Water Loss Audit program. These actions would enable St. Helena to target compliance with the state’s water loss performance standards, a critical tool for long-term protection of our water security. Now is the time.

Lester Hardy is chair of the St. Helena Planning Commission and a candidate for City Council.

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