October 01, 2021

Bay Area Impact: Are We Prepared for an Extreme Drought?

5 min

Reservoir levels are down, and temperatures are up all across California. Right now, 88% of California is experiencing extreme drought conditions, up from just 3% one year ago. What is the region's risk of suffering a catastrophic water shortage? How prepared are the Bay Area's water systems for the potential for even more dry years ahead? How is the region planning to expand drought-proof water resources like desalination and wastewater recycling?

The Bay Area Council and Venable delved into these topics and more in a webinar discussion with representatives from the Bay Area's four largest water utilities, who together serve over 6.5 million residents.

How dire is the situation?

While 88% of California is facing extreme drought, almost 45% of the state is experiencing exceptional drought, which is one level higher on the U.S. Drought Monitor. In exceptional drought conditions, fields are left fallow, orchards are removed, fish are relocated, and it becomes far more expensive to fight wildfires.

Gary Kremen, vice chair, District 7, Santa Clara Valley Water District (Valley Water), describes the situation in his district as "grim." Valley Water supplies two million residents, with 31% for general business use and another 8% for agriculture. Currently Valley Water gets its supply from the state and federal systems, where the upstream reservoirs are at historic lows. Kremen's district has been receiving only 5% of its allocation from the state, while the federal government has provided a small amount plus some health and safety water. Even if his region experiences a wet winter, it is unlikely to be enough. "It's gonna be pretty bad next year," Kremen stated. Additionally, the 5,000 well owners in his district will likely see their wells dry up in the coming year. "That's gonna be really bad for individuals. That's gonna be bad for businesses, and it's gonna be horrible for the environment."

Valley Water is hoping that a new reservoir in Pacheco will help them meet supply demands during future droughts. The utility was granted $484 million in state funding through Prop 1, the Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014. Valley Water has also responded to the historic drought by implementing a mandatory 15% reduction in water use for customers.

Mike Tognolini, director of Water and Natural Resources for East Bay Municipal Utility District (East Bay MUD), says his customers should expect to make sacrifices to conserve water if the dry spell continues. East Bay MUD serves 1.4 million customers and gets much of its supply from Pardee Reservoir, which is fed by the Mokelumne River and annual Sierra snowpack melt. Tognolini said 2021 is the second-driest year on record in terms of precipitation on the Mokelumne River. In response, East Bay MUD has activated supplemental supplies and asked customers to voluntarily conserve 10% more water; with these measures the district expects to be prepared if dry conditions continue for two more years.

Things are looking brighter in neighboring Contra Costa County. Lucinda Shih, water resources manager, Contra Costa Water District (CCWD), says her district is in a good position to meet the needs of customers even if the drought lasts several more years. CCWD serves around 500,000 people, with a third of its water sold to industrial customers. The utility has a contract with the Central Valley Project, which provides her district with water to meet public health and safety needs. Following the public vote approving Prop 1, the California Water Commission conditionally awarded her utility $470 million to expand it even further. She expects to have the final award hearing in the summer of 2022, with construction starting soon after.

In San Francisco, the situation is a bit more complicated. Steve Ritchie, assistant general manager, Water Enterprise, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), says his district is suffering because of regulations that curtail SFPUC's access to water supplies. Its main sources are Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and Don Pedro Reservoir. However, the state has curtailed its water rights to protect downstream water right holders, meaning SFPUC cannot access those two reservoirs. San Francisco has joined a lawsuit filed by San Joaquin Tributaries Authority against the State Water Resources Control Board relating to curtailments.

Ritchie said that SFPUC prepares for long-term droughts by running simulations of the drought that lasted from 1987 through 1992, then adding a simulation of the 1976-77 drought to replicate an eight-and-a-half-year drought sequence. "If we have one more dry year, it will look grim. If we have two years, it will look even more grim." Ritchie said that his utility may have to declare a drought emergency in the new year in response to the curtailments.

What are the utility companies doing to prepare for lengthy droughts?

Utilities are looking toward new technology, like automated water meters and leak alert programs, and improving water recycling systems. They are also seeking ways to expand their storage capabilities and find new sources of water.

By late 2022, SFPUC expects to have water recycling projects completed to irrigate Golden Gate Park and Lincoln Park Golf Course. This will free up additional groundwater that is currently being used to irrigate those parks, increasing the amount of available groundwater from about 1 million to 4 million gallons per day.

All four Bay Area water utility representatives agree that conserving water is the top way to protect the region from suffering the effects of long-term droughts. They have programs in place to promote water use efficiency and recommend that customers replace old water fixtures. Customers are also urged to utilize automated water meters to read their usage hourly and to keep themselves and utility companies notified when there is a water leak.

Last, utility representatives have encouraged homeowners to opt for responsible and minimal landscaping. Ritchie of SFPUC noted, "Everybody consistently believes we should work hard to keep our trees alive, but lawns, things like that, those are going to become something of history unless you've got recycled water to irrigate them with." He reiterated that "large ornamental lawns" should not be commonplace in California.

Want to learn more about the Bay Area drought and what you can do to help? View the full webinar, and learn more about Venable's Environmental and Natural Resources practice.


  • Gary Kremen, Vice Chair, District 7, Santa Clara Valley Water District
  • Lucinda Shih, Water Resources Manager, Contra Costa Water District
  • Steve Ritchie, Assistant General Manager, Water Enterprise, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission
  • Mike Tognolini, Director of Water and Natural Resources, East Bay Municipal Utility District


  • Anna Sciaruto, Senior Policy Associate, Bay Area Council
  • William Sloan, Partner, Venable