With California mired in the worst drought in state history, Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday signed into law a measure aimed at reducing the billions of gallons of water lost every year across the state from leaks in aging and cracked water pipes in hundreds of city water systems.
The bill, SB 555, by state Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Vacaville, requires California’s urban water departments and private water companies to audit their systems and report their annual water loss to the state starting in Oct. 1, 2017.
The information will be posted each year on the website of the state Department of Water Resources so people can compare which systems are losing the most water to aging, dilapidated pipes and which are most efficient.
Experts say water agencies lose a stunning amount of water to cracked welds, broken pipes and other leaks. One study done in 2011 by the California Public Utilities Commission estimated that 840,000 acre feet of water — or 10 percent of all the water that urban residents in California use each year — is lost to leaks.
That’s roughly equal to all the water that the Bay Area’s three biggest water systems — Hetch Hetchy, the Santa Clara Valley Water District and East Bay Municipal Utility District — deliver to all 5.7 million of their customers in a year.
“The fastest and cheapest way to save water is to identify and recover the water lost on a daily basis in our urban areas,” said Wolk on Friday. “Every drop counts.”
The new law also would require the state Water Resources Control Board to set standards on acceptable leak rates by July 1, 2020, which it could force water suppliers to meet.
Until now, state law requires urban water agencies to report their leak rates only every five years to state water officials.
The most recent reports, from 2010, show a wide range of leak rates in the Bay Area, from 3 percent in Hillsborough and Antioch to 7 percent at the San Jose Water Company, 9 percent at Santa Cruz and East Bay MUD, and 15 percent at the Contra Costa Water District, according to a review by this newspaper last year.
With reservoirs across the state at low levels, and urban residents on strict lawn watering limits, experts said reducing leaks is long overdue.
“The system is rife with leaks, as all systems are,” said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based nonprofit water research group. “But we aren’t good with finding out where they are and fixing them.”
Across California, some water systems have cast iron pipes more than 100 years old. Others have cement pipes near fault zones that have cracked as the ground has shifted. And although many agencies use high-tech devices to find leaks, fixing them hasn’t always been a top priority in non-drought years.
In the Bay Area, some communities are replacing miles of pipe. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, for instance, is spending $4.6 billion to replace leaky pipes carrying Hetch Hetchy water and modernize its overall system. The project, to be completed in 2018, is designed to withstand a magnitude-7.1 earthquake. San Jose Water Company has a program to replace 24 miles of pipe every year in its 2,400-mile system.
SB 555 was among 24 water bills that Brown signed on Friday. Among the more significant ones:
- AB 1164, by Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Glendale), which prohibits cities and counties from passing rules to ban the installation of drought-tolerant landscaping or artificial turf on residential property.
- SB 637, by state Senator Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), which requires that miners using suction dredge pumps obtain a permit from the State Water Resources Control Board. Fishing groups and environmental organizations say hobbyist gold miners have harmed fish in rivers throughout the Sierra with diesel-powered vacuum hoses that suck up gravel, reintroduce mercury and turn clear streams into murky watercourses unfit for swimming of fishing.
Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/PaulRogersSJMN.