A FOUR COLOR DROUGHT

Demands on the Truckee River exceed the rivers ability to keep up. The river is particularly stressed during droughts which could become more common.

How bad is this multi-year drought?  With 67% of Nevada in either “extreme” or “exceptional” drought – the two most severe drought categories – it’s bad.  For western Nevada rivers and the fish and wildlife, farmers, and western Nevada city folk dependent on those rivers, it is even worse.  The Truckee River watershed in western Nevada and eastern California’s Sierra is firmly in the grip of an “exceptional” drought according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

August 19, 2014 Drought Map of Nevada

August 19, 2014 Drought Map of Nevada

Reduce outdoor water use by 10% and water responsibly this summer message from Truckee Meadows Water Authority

Reduce outdoor water use by 10% and water responsibly this summer message from Truckee Meadows Water Authority

If you live in Washoe County, chances are you have gotten a notice in your most recent TMWA (Truckee Meadows Water Authority) bill to “Please reduce your watering by 10% and use water responsibly this summer.” As I’ve written before, I’m concerned that the message really doesn’t make much of an impact and doesn’t really address the severe problems of the over-allocation of water resources in western Nevada.

Low flows at Rock Park on the Truckee River August 18, 2014.

Low flows at Rock Park on the Truckee River August 18, 2014.

Right now – today – all the Truckee Meadows ditches are 100% dry.  Boca Reservoir is at 18% capacity and declining. Lake Tahoe is a mere 6 inches above its rim and dropping about an inch every week.  Pyramid Lake has fallen over 20 feet in elevation since the drought began in 2000. The Truckee River at Farad just over the border in California is down 64% to 180 CFS (cubic feet per second) and the river is flowing at half that through Reno and even less through Sparks.(Flows at Farad are down 64% from mid-July due to depletion of water in upstream reservoirs – Tahoe, Prosser, Boca, and Stampede.  A 20 foot drop in elevation at Pyramid Lake represents a deficit of around 2 million acre-feet.)

Reno Thunderstorm August 11 2014

Reno Thunderstorm August 11 2014

Some of us in the Truckee Meadows got a nice break from the not-to-dependable northern Nevada monsoon rain which aided our yards and gardens.  But it didn’t break the drought – not by a long shot.  While some of us did take advantage of the rain and turned off our sprinklers for a week and a half, mostly folks continued to water as if there was no rain at all – including sending water down the gutter aplenty, TMWA’s message notwithstanding.

Water pours into the gutter from excessive watering in August 2014.

Water pours into the gutter from excessive watering in August 2014.

The message from TMWA is a weak one.  TMWA says it has plenty of water in storage and we should not worry.  Asking for us to voluntarily reduce our use by 10% and “water responsibly this summer” is hardly responsive to the current drought and its severity.

“Water Responsibly This Summer?”

Should we be watering “irresponsibly” when summer ends?  How about next summer?  last summer?  It seems like an odd message at best.  And, it doesn’t say anything about efficiency or conservation.  Rather, it implies that efficient use and, heaven forbid, conservation, isn’t needed here in the Truckee Meadows when it comes to outdoor watering unless TMWA is using its drought reserves.

TMWA argues that we should “reduce” our use because now we’re using our drought supplies in two upstream reservoirs (Donner and Independence Lakes). Water in these reservoirs doesn’t have to be released until there is a “need”.  Before the end of July TMWA was just using “rights” to the flows in the Truckee River which were running around 500 CFS at Farad, California.  That “water right” to take water from the Truckee River became just a “paper water right” when the flows dropped off – because, the water simply isn’t there.  So, to be able to take water from the river, TMWA must release stored water into the Truckee River from its drought reserves or pump more from wells in the Truckee Meadows.

TMWA Sparks Truckee River Treatment Plant Intake

TMWA Sparks Truckee River Treatment Plant Intake

TMWA argues that is why these reservoirs are there – namely, to handle droughts and they’ll fill again even if the drought continues as long as customers reduce outdoor use 10% and do nothing to conserve water indoors.  Efficiency and conservation are mentioned in the context of indoor watering, and here, TMWA says, there is no more to be done, thank you very much.

What is needed, as I’ve written before, is a short and long-term plan to encourage indoor water efficiency and outdoor water conservation through water efficient plantings and the reduction of lawns — you know, turf.  This should be encouraged not only to conserve Truckee River flows to benefit fish and wildlife, but also to keep our lakes and reservoirs as full as possible to keep our recreation economy afloat during dry times – like now.  The lakes and rivers we all love can’t be healthy as long as we stress them during both good times and bad.

Can TMWA rise to the occasion and call for water efficiency and conservation as a simple fact of living in one of the driest places on earth?  TMWA’s conservation web pages do discuss good ways to conserve water and there is a guide to establishing a yard that conserves water.  Is there any incentive for a home owner to follow these suggestions?  TMWA and its governing boards aren’t encouraging conservation through rates or other incentives.

More to be said later

Rates are a complicated matter and most people probably pay little attention to how much their water bill is – perhaps because it is less than their cell, telephone, or cable bills.  While this topic is deserving of it’s own two or three articles, here is a brief explanation of how residential customers of TMWA get charged for their water and why it doesn’t encourage conservation.  Unlike many western desert cities, TMWA has only a 3 “tier” residential rate structure (see sidebar on below).

Residential customers in a single billing period are charged $1.72 for the first 6,000 gallons of water or "tier 1"; $2.78 for 6001-25,000 gallons or "tier 2"; $3.25 for all usage over 25,001 gallons or "tier 3".  "Base" water use is considered 6,000 gallons or less per family or household per billing period.

Residential customers in a single billing period are charged $1.72 for the first 6,000 gallons of water or “tier 1”; $2.78 for 6001-25,000 gallons or “tier 2”; $3.25 for all usage over 25,001 gallons or “tier 3”. “Base” water use is considered 6,000 gallons or less per family or household per billing period.

 The 3rd tier doesn’t kick in until your water use exceeds 25,000 gallons in a billing period (typically 30 days or so).  And while the percent increase in water cost between tier 1 and tier 2 is a significant 62%, the difference in charges between water usage in the 2nd and 3rd tier amount to a only a far smaller 17% increase in cost per 1000 gallons.  The other obvious problem for conservation? Use in tier 3 can be 25,001 gallons or 250,000 gallons or 2,500,000 gallons and the rate  stays the same.   Effectively, the largest water users aren’t penalized for using lots and lots of water.  Is that a way to achieve “responsible” use of water?  Does this rate structure encourage conservation of water and wise use of water?  Not so much.

Will TMWA customers reduce their use by 10%?  They may, but all of us can do much better.  One reason there isn’t noticeable water conservation in the Truckee Meadows is that a serious conservation message from our water agency and its governing board is mostly non-existent.  That needs to change.

 

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About Dennis Ghiglieri

My concern for the Truckee River grew over the years. It started with picking up trash and supporting better water quality. I helped create the "living river"plan with other citizens on the Community Flood Coalition; a plan to reduce flood impacts to infrastructure through river restoration and protection of the floodplain. I understand how critical the Truckee River is to the environment – and economy – of our entire region. I'm hoping that through these pages we can all understand our connection to the Truckee River and why we need to protect it.

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