OAKLAND -- The East Bay's largest water district decided Tuesday to use voluntary conservation and tap a new water supply from the Sacramento River to get through the year without rationing.
The East Bay Municipal Utility District will continue to ask its 1.3 million customers in Contra Costa and Alameda counties to cut water use 10 percent -- a target they met in April.
In a 7-0 vote, the board also decided to make the district's first-ever use of an emergency water supply that has been in the planning for more than a half-century.
In April and May, the water district will pump in 16,000 acre feet of water -- a 32-day supply -- of Sacramento River water from near Freeport, south of Sacramento.
John Coleman, a water board member from Walnut Creek, said the delivery from the Sacramento River is a historic milestone in protecting customers against shortages.
"We spent decades and hundreds of millions of dollars to come up with a collaborative project," Coleman said. "Now I feel it's proper to say it's time to take it."
The water will be delivered through a $900 million water delivery project that was jointly built by Sacramento County and EBMUD, and finished in 2011.
The water district in late September will reassess its water supplies and decide if it needs to take more of the Sacramento River water.
EBMUD typically relies on Mokelumne River water that is captured in the Central Sierra and piped to customers in Crockett, Richmond, Berkeley, Oakland, Alameda, San Leandro, Danville, San Ramon, Lafayette, part of Walnut Creek and other communities. But this is turning out to be the second driest water year on record in the Mokelumne basin. Only 23.4 inches of precipitation have fallen there, 53 percent of normal, and the snowpack is melting fast because of warm weather in recent weeks.
Relying on customer conservation and the new Sacramento River water supply will leave the district with enough water to be prepared in case the next winter and spring are also dry, said Eileen White, the district's water operations manager.
The district will start out taking 16,000 acre feet over two months, although it has contractual rights to take up to 66,500 acre feet of water. The district uses about 182,500 acre feet in a normal year.
EBMUD tested the pumping plant near Freeport to make sure it did not harm fish like the threatened Delta smelt, and it has passed those tests, White said.
Without the new emergency water supply, district customers likely would face the hardship of mandatory rationing, Coleman said.
Lesa McIntosh, a water board member from Richmond, cautioned that customers will have to continue to cut their water use 10 percent or more to keep the district out of trouble.
"I don't want to give our customers the impression that they get a free pass on conservation," McIntosh said. "We expect our customers to at least stick with the conservation goals."
The district expects to spend about $8 million on the steep pumping and electricity costs to transport the water 130 miles through pipelines and an aqueduct to get to the East Bay. However, the board decided Tuesday it would use reserves to cover those costs rather than impose a surcharge on water bills.
EBMUD General Manager Alexander Coate said the district has a good idea how much water will be in reservoirs in the fall, but it doesn't know how much rain and snow will fall next season.
While some scientists predict next winter may be wet because of expected El Niño trends, the district can't count on getting bailed out of its shortages, White said.
Contact Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267. Follow him at Twitter.com/deniscuff.