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SAN JOSE -- Moving up a decision they planned to make later this spring, the leaders of Silicon Valley's largest water provider, in the face of the worsening drought, will vote Tuesday on a host of new water conservation policies, including a reduction in water use.

The board of the Santa Clara Valley Water District, a government agency based in San Jose that provides drinking water to 1.8 million people, is expected to approve a "preliminary water use reduction target" of 10 percent lower than the county used last year.

"People have been asking me 'When are you guys going to do something?'" said board member Brian Schmidt, who is also an environmental attorney. "I think the public will respond well. All they have to do is step outside and see nothing coming down day after day."

The district also will vote on Tuesday whether to spend $500,000 to expand a public outreach campaign to urge Santa Clara County residents to conserve water and to broaden programs that provide rebates to residents who install water-efficient appliances and replace lawns with drought tolerant plants. The district has $5.2 million budgeted this year for conservation programs and $220,000 for a water conservation campaign.

Schmidt and fellow board member Linda LeZotte have an additional proposal to double spending on rebates.

Technically, the pending vote is a voluntary request for water savings. The district is a wholesale provider that sells water to 13 retailers, including cities like Gilroy and Santa Clara, and private companies like the San Jose Water Company. It will be up to each retail provider to decide whether to go along with the 10 percent goal and how to enforce it, if at all.


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Other districts

Santa Clara is the latest Bay Area water agency to call for conservation after 2013 ended as the driest year in California, dating back to 1850. Despite a chance of rain on Thursday, so far, virtually no rain has fallen in January.

The Alameda County Water District, which provides water to 366,000 people in Fremont, Newark and Union City, requested a 20 percent voluntary cutback on Jan. 17.

The Zone 7 Water Agency in Livermore, which provides water to residents of Livermore, Pleasanton and Dublin, also requested a 20 percent voluntary reduction.

And last Tuesday, the Marin Municipal Water District asked for a 25 percent voluntary reduction from its customers. Already, the Santa Cruz Water Department has banned landscape irrigation between 10 a.m and 5 p.m. It also has forbidden the filling of newly installed swimming pools and has ordered restaurants not to serve water unless customers request it. Initial violations get a warning, but after that, fines begin at $100.

Other large agencies, such as East Bay Municipal Utility District, the Contra Costa Water District and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which operates the Hetch Hetchy system, have yet to set a water reduction target.

Abby Figueroa, a district spokeswoman for East Bay MUD, said the board will hear an update on the water supply from staff on Tuesday and may soon take action.

"In a typical dry year, the decision would have happened in May," Figueroa said. "But all indications are the board is going to make a decision before that."

Cost concerns

Water planners note that February, March and April could still bring large winter storms. Added to that, when they call for water conservation, their agencies sell less water and lose money.

If the Santa Clara Valley Water District's customers meet the 10 percent reduction goal, for example, that would save 36,200 acre feet of water -- roughly twice the capacity of Lexington Reservoir in Los Gatos -- and will cost the agency $15 million to $20 million in lost revenue.

Although farmers and ranchers are so far suffering the most, urban residents have largely escaped the drought's impacts. That's because after California's last big drought -- 1987 to 1992 -- most urban water agencies put major conservation programs in place.

Santa Clara County, for example, uses the same amount of water now, about 350,000 acre feet a year, as it did in 1980, even though the population has increased from 1.3 million people to 1.9 million people. Los Angeles and other urban areas have similarly limited water demand through low-flush toilets, lawn replacement programs and other conservation efforts.

Some residents are already off to the races.

Doug Tinney, a retired graphic designer, and his wife, Joyce, started putting a bucket in the shower last week. As they wait for the water to warm, they catch about three gallons each shower.

"I went out and got a 32-gallon plastic garbage can with a lid," Tinney said. "I put it in the side yard. I take the bucket out there and pour it in." That method provides far more water than he needs for his plants. "It's a great feeling to know that we are saving almost 50 gallons a week between the two of us. If you start multiplying that out, that could be millions of gallons of water across the Bay Area."

Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/PaulRogersSJMN.