Shawn Novack speaks with community members about the county's water emergency during the May 26 Green Business Committee meeting. Photo by Carmel de Bertaut.
Shawn Novack speaks with community members about the county's water emergency during the May 26 Green Business Committee meeting. Photo by Carmel de Bertaut.

On June 11 BenitoLink spoke with Shawn Novack, Water Conservation Program Manager with the Water Resources Association of San Benito County to discuss the latest on the county’s water emergency. 

All local water agencies implemented Stage II of the Water Shortage Contingency Plan in May as a result of dry conditions. Landscape irrigation is limited to twice a week. In the urban Hollister area odd-number addresses are restricted to irrigating Tuesdays and Saturdays and even-number addresses to Wednesdays and Sundays. San Juan Bautista is restricting landscape irrigation to Monday and Thursday.

Novack said that Hollister Code Enforcement will begin patrolling for irrigation violators on June 16. First and second offenses come with a warning followed by fines of $200 to $500. 


BenitoLink: How can we use less water in our homes?

SBC single family water usage. Graph courtesy of Shawn Novack.
SBC single family water usage. Graph courtesy of Shawn Novack.

Novack: Over 50% of residential water goes outside, mainly to landscape irrigation, and that’s why many  of our emergency water conservation measures were focused on the irrigation control, limiting irrigation to two days a week—and the runoff is not allowed to come off your property, that’s a straight up waste of water. It’s not doing any good to anybody. 


What about car washing in the driveway? 

You’re allowed to do that but we ask that you use a shut off valve. I suggest you put water in a bucket and use that to wash down your car and then spray it off. All commercial car washes in the county recycle their water.


Besides low flow toilets, how does your agency help residents reduce water use?

We have given out over 18,000 toilets, so we feel like we’re reaching a saturation point and that’s why we’re really focusing on outside irrigation. 

We can help people by going to your home and helping you comply with these new emergency water conservation measures making sure your controller is going off on your day to water, check for leaks, we do have low flow shower heads, faucet aerators, and even if you have a little flow toilet and would like to make sure it’s not leaking. 

There is a fallacy that you can hear leaks, which is not always the case. I tell people if they suspect their tank has a leak, put a drop or two of food dye in the tank before you go to bed at night. When you wake up, if it’s in the bowl you know you got to replace that flapper between the tank and the bowl. But the main thing we do is go out to your property, check for leaks, make sure there’s no leaks and then make sure your irrigation is complying with emergency measures.


How much of our water is recycled? 

Most of the water coming into the Hollister urban area is either recycled where it goes to farmers because there’s a pipeline that goes from the reclamation plant toward the airport. So there’s all kinds of turnouts there for the farmers to hook into. Some of the water is percolated back into our groundwater basin to help recharge that basin. In Hollister we recycle almost all of the water from homes with the exception of homes that feed into the Ridgemark wastewater plant that is not set up to recycle. 


How well do greywater systems help to save water?

You are allowed to put in a laundry or landscape greywater system and can use 50 gallons a day without a permit. I don’t discourage people from it, but as I said before most Hollister water is recycled. That is not the case in San Juans Bautista or other parts of the county. I would suggest people in these areas and people who use well water to do everything they can to recycle and capture any storm water possible, or at least have a turnaround that diverts water out to your landscape rather than to the gutters and storm drains.


Give us a little history of this drought.

We have essentially been in a drought since 2011. We had a little respite in 2017 when we had those big atmospheric rivers come through and flooding at Lovers Lane. We had some good allocations that year and were able to pump more water into the ground basin at the time. In 2019, the drought started again. It’s gotten worse each year.

This year we thought we were going to have a lot of water because we had such unbelievable snow but as the calendar went, the January temperatures started to heat up and we had received no new storms. Most of the snow melted and went right into the ground rather than rivers and reservoirs so that led us to the steps we are taking today because we got zero allocation of our water from the Central Valley Project not only for agriculture but for cities and other municipalities. 


Give us an overview of the county’s water system.

SBC water system. Graphic courtesy of Shawn Novack.
SBC water system. Graphic courtesy of Shawn Novack.

We have the Central Valley Project that’s a federal water project in the state of California. There’s two big water infrastructure projects in our state. One is the state water project which we don’t hook up to, but we are hooked into the Central Valley Project and that brings water from the northern areas: from the delta and from all the way to Shasta down through the canals, down through the Central Valley. 

Some of that water is stored in the San Luis Reservoir and that’s where we get our water from. That water comes through Pacheco Pass and right around Casa de Fruta that water splits in two, one part going north to Santa Clara County, and the other coming down here. This water makes its way down to the San Juan Valley. 

There are several turnoffs along the way in which farmers and other small parcels can hook up to, and also it hooks up to the water treatment plants, two that we have in our area that treat that water. 

We also have our groundwater basin, which is very important. That’s probably our biggest water supply. That water originates down in South county. It comes from the watershed on San Benito Mountain, a 5,000-foot mountain. That water in the southeastern part of our county works its way up to the northwestern part of our county. It flows through the San Benito river; there is a canal that comes off of there, the Paicines Canal, which fills up the Paicines Reservoir.

This also helps recharge our groundwater basin when there is water down there. You’ll notice that several wells for Sunnyslope, Hollister and San Juan Bautista are close to the river to take advantage of that percolation.

The imported water serves three purposes. One is to improve our drinking water; it’s much better quality than our groundwater. Second, it helps farmers and growers produce specialty crops. Power ground water has a lot of salt in it and that’s not good for a lot of plants, so this gives them more opportunity to grow different types of plants. The third reason is as drinking water enters our homes mixed with groundwater is a higher quality than you used to have, so that way wastewater is better quality. We can meet our wastewater recharge requirements and have high quality recycled water and then as we put that water back into the groundwater basin it’s at a higher quality so it doesn’t add to our issues with water quality from our natural groundwater. 


What percentage of groundwater capacity are we at? 

It is hard to give an actual percentage. I do know right before this latest drought that started  three years ago we were almost full. The basin holds 500,000 acre feet of water and we were close to that. We have very good supply, but like I said the quality is not so good. The quality has been degrading as the droughts go on.


San Benito is a very dry county. How do we have such an abundance of groundwater?

The community made a very wise decision back in the ’70s to go with the Central Valley Project. Not only does it do what I have already talked about, it also helps balance our groundwater basin. When we have years of large allocations we can percolate water back into the groundwater basin. It’s a wonderful storage area for water.


Talk about the county’s wastewater sustainability plan.

During our last drought in 2014 Gov. Jerry Brown passed the Groundwater Management Act. One of the requirements of that is to have water agencies produce what’s called the groundwater sustainability plan. The main question is how big will our water allocations be going forward. Climate scientists say we are in a mega-drought and that climate change is exacerbating that. 

This year we didn’t get allocated water and I don’t know how long that will last. We hope this winter we will get rain and snow but we don’t know. Our weather forecasting is not well developed. That is why we must conserve now.

Turf Removal Program. Graphic courtesy of Shawn Novack.
Turf Removal Program. Graphic courtesy of Shawn Novack.


Is there anything else you would like to add?

We have a turf removal program. Here in California we have a lot of decorative lawns. Those are the type of lawns I encourage people to pull up. We are trying to get people to plant vegetation more appropriate to our rainfall. We are offering $2 a square foot, up to 1,000 square feet. Lawn cannot be completely dead; it must have some green in it.

We have clay soil here which absorbs water slowly. Water for about three to five minutes, wait an hour then water for another three to five minutes, If needed, a third three to five minutes can be added an hour later.


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Carmel has a BA in Natural Sciences/Biodiversity Stewardship from San Jose State University and an AA in Communications Studies from West Valley Community College and she reports on science and the environment....