Silicon Valley’s water situation — how bad is it, and what can we do?

California’s creeping drought conditions have quickly become a major concern for the state’s policymakers, businesses, and communities. Governor Gavin Newsom has declared regional drought emergencies for 50 of the state’s 58 counties and is urging Californians to reduce their water usage by 15%. 

Locally, Santa Clara Valley Water District (Valley Water), the water agency that oversees Santa Clara County’s supplies, declared a water shortage emergency condition and is shifting from a voluntary to mandatory water conservation target (15% reduction from 2019 levels of use) for retailers (cities, our members California Water Service and San Jose Water, etc.) and consumers to implement and achieve. These actions by Valley Water’s Board of Directors come in response to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s decreased supplies of water from the Sierra Nevada snowpack, as well as other developments. 

The U.S. Drought Monitor now rates Santa Clara County in “Extreme Drought” condition, the second-most severe classification. The County of Santa Clara has also subsequently declared a local drought emergency.

Unfortunately, drought is not a new phenomenon for California. Indeed, our 21st century experience as a state has included two multi-year droughts, during 2007-09 and then 2012-16. These challenges are not unexpected. The changing climate is changing the water cycle and the drought is negatively  affecting our water supplies. This poses a serious risk to public health and safety and threatens to undermine our state’s competitiveness.

The Silicon Valley Leadership Group places a premium on water supply reliability and infrastructure modernization. It’s crucial for our members and communities to have enough clean water to meet their economic, environmental and public health needs. Water infrastructure serving the Bay Area must also be resilient to shocks and stressors, like earthquakes, floods and climate change.

In the face of a drought, what are we doing to prepare for more limited amounts of water?

Various policy, programmatic and technological solutions can address limited and decreasing water supplies. California’s most recent drought required a combination of reduced supply allocations and conservation incentives and mandates. Those measures remain part of the “toolbox” of options to fix our water problems now.

The good news is that Silicon Valley can respond and adapt in the short term. Besides issuing water shortage declarations and calls for conservation, our local water agencies are also leveraging stored supplies from outside the Bay Area to account for lower-than-expected precipitation and allocations. Valley Water, for instance, has access to the Semitropic Groundwater Storage Bank in Kern County. This storage bank will play a critical role in meeting this year’s water supply needs, given significantly lower supplies from other imported sources. Incentive programs for community members to reduce their water consumption and increase efficiency can also provide supply resilience for Silicon Valley in the face of another drought.

Over the medium and long term, we must more deeply internalize conservation as a way of life, continue to diversify our water supply, and upgrade and optimize the systems that manage and deliver our water. 

Investments in drought response and water supply resilience now will continue to pay dividends for Silicon Valley in the future, while we work on future solutions to stabilize supply and creatively conserve. To date, there has been insufficient and inconsistent investment in the pipes, dams, treatment facilities and other infrastructure that manages, captures and conveys water from its source to where it’s in demand. Silicon Valley and California must maintain and expand the portfolio of supply sources at our disposal, while also advancing partnership and conservation efforts that ensure an adequate supply of water for all — our communities, companies and the environment.

The Leadership Group knows that we will only survive another drought with a multi-pronged set of solutions. Efforts of note at the local level that SVLG has supported include passing a parcel tax extension measure last November for Santa Clara County — Measure S, for the Safe, Clean Water Program — and a recycled water partnership between Valley Water and the Cities of Palo Alto and Mountain View in 2019. These efforts secured ongoing sources of funding for water supply and infrastructure, and will enable continued and increased collaboration across jurisdictions and sectors in Santa Clara County.

The Leadership Group also supports efforts to ensure water supply reliability through voluntary agreements, which are comprehensive sets of measures to meet ecological and supply needs among a variety of parties outside of the traditional regulatory process. One voluntary agreement (VA) of note for the Bay Area is for the Tuolumne River, which provides a significant amount of water to the region, including Silicon Valley. The TRVA offers an improvement on the Bay-Delta Plan approved at the end of the 2018 by the State Water Board, with the aim of ensuring sufficient and reliable water supplies for continued economic prosperity, housing production and healthy and safe communities while maintaining water quality standards for the benefit of river ecosystems. In concert with a coalition of other concerned Bay Area partners, the Leadership Group has called for the Water Board to evaluate the TRVA and consider it for inclusion in the Bay-Delta Plan. We urge California Governor Gavin Newsom to move forward with actions to further facilitate the aforementioned processes.  

California needs to continue pursue an “all of the above” approach and diversify its overall water supply portfolio by pursuing more water treatment, recycling and desalination, and we need to make efficiency a way of life in order to secure our water supply and give the business community the increased confidence it needs to keep investing in our region. Silicon Valley stands ready to do its part to help provide the tools and resources needed as we adjust to the new normal. 

July 9, 2021