Unless it rains and there are substantial successful conservation measures, San Diego County could end up receiving only 15 percent of the water it normally receives from the Sacramento Delta.
The State Department of Water Resources announced Thursday that barring rain and a major cutback on usage, as much as 85 percent of the water could be withheld from the Delta.
The State Water Project delivers water to more than 25 million residents, including about 3.5 million here plus 750,000 acres of farmland. Water to farms here fuels more than $1 billion in crops annually.
Jeff Kightlinger, Metropolitan Water District CEO, said Californians must immediately reduce their water use to stretch what little water is available whether they live in San Francisco or San Diego.
"We are preparing for the very real possibility of water shortages and rationing throughout the region in 2009," Kightlinger said in a statement.
California water agencies received their full allotment in 2006 due to a heavy snowpack, but a very dry year pushed our quota to just 35 percent of normal in 2007. San Diego receives about 60 percent of its water from the Delta with most of the rest coming from the Colorado River.
Now, not only has the rain been sparse, but a judge's ruling earlier this year that the Delta Smelt had to be protected, means last year's 35 percent allocation could be cut another 20 percent.
The Water Resources announcement could have profound implications from everyone who wants to water their lawn or wash their car, to biotechnology firms that must have reliable supplies, to those making their living in agriculture. Agriculture already operates under a 30 percent mandatory cutback agreed upon last year in exchange for cheaper water in prior years.
As noted by the San Diego County Farm Bureau, the past 15 months has been anything but easy for the area grower.
In October 2007, wildfires destroyed avocado and citrus groves from Poway to Valley Center. Then, with the 30 percent cutback, avocado growers, for example, were forced to take large percentages of their trees out of production and "stump" them to keep within the water allotment.
Also, citrus farmers are now subject to an 1,100-square-mile quarantine due to an Asian Citrus Psyllid that covers the entire part of the county south of Highway 78.
Eric Larson, San Diego County Farm Bureau executive director, said agriculture could be forced to live with a 40 percent cutback of its allotment if deliveries are cut back further than they were last year. The bottom line is he doesn't know.
"It's really difficult to make business decisions. First we need the precipitation. Secondly, we're depending on the success of conservation measures. If people don't step up and do this, the water's still going to have to come from someplace," Larson said. "Things don't look good."
Maureen Stapleton, San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) general manager, who noted the allocation was the second lowest from the state since 1962, said she is still working under the assumption that the required conservation measures may be done voluntarily.
"But it's absolutely critical that we redouble our efforts," Stapleton said.
Stapleton said people could start by resetting their sprinklers to go off at night and for shorter periods when they set back their clocks Saturday night.
"Sixty percent of the water we use is for outdoors," Stapleton said.
Stapleton said there is good news. For one thing the SDCWA via the Metropolitan Water District (MWD), which supplies water to half the state's population, has interim agreements with Sacramento-area farmers to temporarily fallow their land in the event of spot shortages.
"We have short-term transfers that would help," Stapleton said.
The SDCWA also has already adopted drought ordinances in place if mandatory rationing needs to go forward. Stapleton said ultimately, the entire Delta's network will need to be reconstructed and expanded before the problems get even worse.
"When you look at the Delta -- ecologically, its conveyance network and its supply, it's a broken system," Stapleton said. "Our highest priority should be how we are going to fix it."
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger favors building more dams and designing ways, such as the old Peripheral Canal plan, to funnel water through or around the environmentally fragile delta. The proposals have failed to gain traction in the Legislature, however.
In the meantime, the while MWD has depleted more than a third of its water reserves, a wet winter could mean cities and farms will still get more water. That happened in 1993 after the state promised contractors just 10 percent of their allocation requests -- the lowest initial projection on record. The water agencies later received their full allotments after a "miracle March" filled reservoirs over the brim.
-- The Associated Press contributed to this report.