Declaring that California's historic drought is worsening, leaders of Silicon Valley's largest drinking water provider on Tuesday will consider asking the public for a 20 percent reduction in water use, double what the agency first requested last month.
The call for more conservation could lead to everything from new restrictions on lawn watering to temporary hikes in water rates -- the most visible impacts to the public in the South Bay so far as a result of the drought.
The Santa Clara Valley Water District's board of directors is expected at its evening meeting to approve the 20 percent target, which would be its most far-reaching since 1992, when the district requested 25 percent cuts during the 1987-92 drought.
"Things have not gotten better in the past month. They have gotten significantly worse," said Joan Maher, deputy operating officer of the district's water supply division.
Exactly how the goal will be enforced and whether it will mean higher water bills has not been decided yet.
The water district is a government agency based in San Jose that serves 1.8 million people in Santa Clara County. But it does not send them water bills. Instead, it acts as a wholesaler, selling water to 13 retail water providers -- including cities like Gilroy and Santa Clara, along with private companies like San Jose Water Co.
Each retailer must decide whether to use mandatory rationing with fines or tough new rules with "water cops" writing tickets for excessive use or voluntary methods to meet the goal. Some retailers may decide to do nothing, and the district cannot force them to act, although most are expected to take some steps soon.
"That's the most important question of the day," said Maher. "It's one thing to set a target, but we need to achieve the target. ... We will be tracking by retailer. If there are retailers who are not achieving the target, the public will know who they are."
John Tang, a spokesman for San Jose Water, which provides water to 1 million residents in San Jose, said that in the next month or so, his company expects to ban landscape watering between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. and set odd-even watering days, along with prohibiting filling swimming pools and requiring restaurants to serve water only on request.
There may be fines for violators, he said, although the state Public Utilities Commission must approve the measures. San Jose Water probably will not set water use limits, with higher rates for people who exceed targets, he said.
"There's a business philosophy that you don't want to fine customers," Tang said. "You want to treat them like good customers and hope they heed the message. But we want to work with the district and meet our conservation targets. This is a serious situation."
The company will seek reimbursement for its lost profits, which will require a temporary rate increase, he said. In 2009, similar conservation measures at the end of the last drought cost the company $5.6 million in lost water sales, and it temporarily raised rates by 2.5 percent for one year to recover them.
By contrast, the city of Morgan Hill put in place a permanent ban on lawn watering between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. during the last drought in 2008. In mid-March, the Morgan Hill City Council is expected to vote on whether to further limit landscape watering to between three to five days a week, with violators facing a warning first then a fine of $100, followed by $200 for a third offense and up to $500 after that.
"I think the water district has made a wise recommendation. Morgan Hill can meet the goal," said Tony Eulo, who oversees water programs for the city.
Last year, California received the least rain of any year since 1850, when modern records began. So far, San Jose has received only 2.67 inches of rain since July 1. The Sierra Nevada snow pack, a key water source, is 23 percent of normal.
There is some good news, however: A series of Pacific storms is expected to move in Wednesday, bringing strong winds, lightning and steady rain over four days across the Bay Area and Southern California. The storm should bring 2 to 5 inches of rain, forecasters say. That would double yearly totals in many cities but still leave them well below normal.
Santa Clara County needs at least 8 inches of new rain, Maher said, before there is significant runoff into the water district's 10 reservoirs, which are currently 33 percent full.
If the water district's board approves the 20 percent reduction target, it will cost the agency between $30 million and $40 million in lost revenue this year.
Tony Estremera, the district's chairman, said he doesn't expect the agency will raise the rates it charges retailers to cover that cost. Rather, it will delay construction projects, he said.
"The economy is still not up to where it should be," he said. "We don't want to put the burden on people."
The district receives about half of its water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and most of the rest from local groundwater supplies. But with the record-dry conditions, that Delta spigot has been largely shut off.
The purpose of the 20 percent conservation target is to help ensure sufficient groundwater remains by the end of 2014, in case the drought continues in 2015, district officials said.
Some residents are already hard at work on conservation. Joseph Santos of San Jose diverted his gutters into 32-gallon garbage cans to capture rainwater to water his landscaping. He installed low-flow aerators in his faucets and low-flow shower heads. His water bill is already falling, he said.
"It's not just something that affects the environment," he said. "If you want to save money, it affects your wallet."
Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/PaulRogersSJMN.
The water district offers rebates for people who buy water-efficient toilets, washing machines and other appliances, along with paying $1 per square foot to replace grass with drought-tolerant plants. For more information go to www.valleywater.org or call 408-265-2600.