We’re at a transitional moment for water in our community once again. San Benito County is growing, and our water supply must be resilient enough to both accommodate projected population growth while still providing reliable water supply for existing local agricultural, residential, and commercial uses. At the same time, precipitation and snowfall patterns in California are becoming less stable. Thus, continuing to provide a reliable and affordable water supply becomes ever more challenging. Climate scientists have stated the west is in a “megadrought”, which is defined as a prolonged drought lasting two decades or longer.
To this point, San Benito County residents have answered the call to conserve water. Local water conservation efforts have played a huge part in helping San Benito County cope with the megadrought. The Hollister Urban Area has seen its water usage go from 220 gallons per person per day in the late 1990’s to 117 gallons per person per day in 2020. This decrease in water use has been facilitated through a combination of state and local water conservation legislation, education programs, and rebate programs for water-efficient plumbing fixtures and turf removal. Unfortunately, you can only conserve so much, and conservation alone will not be enough to sustain San Benito County’s long-term water supply resiliency.
In response, local water agencies are evaluating alternatives to enhance long-term water supply reliability by bringing more water storage capacity to San Benito County. This would allow the County to import and store more water during wet years, which will enhance the County’s ability to maintain a reliable supply through extended periods of drought. San Benito County’s largest source of imported surface water comes from the Central Valley Project (CVP), and it also imports water purchased on the open market. Since connecting to the CVP in the 1980’s, the San Benito County Water District (SBCWD) has successfully managed our local water supply by using CVP water, other purchased water, and now recycled water to balance the inflows and outflows within the North San Benito County Groundwater Basin. However, extended periods of drought have resulted in imported water becoming more variable and less reliable. Thus, having the flexibility to store imported water in years when its abundant is critical to maintaining a resilient long-term water supply.
A couple of potential storage project alternatives involve using the local groundwater basin for storage. When people think of water storage, most think of dams or reservoirs. However, another means of storing water is to put it in the ground for future withdrawal. The North San Benito County Groundwater Basin is the largest source of stored water in San Benito County. The North San Benito County Groundwater Basin acts like a water savings account – it helps bridge the gap between years of imported water shortage and years where precipitation and snowpack in California are more plentiful.
Other alternatives involve increasing local above-ground storage capacity. The two most likely candidates for expansion are the San Luis Reservoir and the Pacheco Reservoir. Both projects would be led by agencies outside of San Benito County, with the SBCWD having the option of participating in a partial capacity.
Choosing the right storage projects to implement at the right times will involve a balancing act between ensuring long-term water supply reliability and continuing to keep the cost of water as affordable as possible. A couple ways to accomplish this are to construct projects in phased approaches which allows for expansion as demand increases, another is to maximize available grant funding to help reduce the cost burden on local ratepayers and taxpayers. No matter which projects move forward, cost-benefit will be the driving factor in the decision-making process and continuing the ongoing coordination between local water agencies will be critical to ensure the water supply needs within San Benito County are met with coordinated regional solutions.
For more information, residents are encouraged to review the 2022 San Benito Urban Areas Water Supply and Treatment Master Plan (Master Plan), which is scheduled to be released in the coming months. This master plan is an update to the 2008 Hollister Urban Area Water and Wastewater Master Plan and is a collaborative effort between the SBCWD, San Benito County, City of Hollister, Sunnyslope County Water District, and a new partner – the City of San Juan Bautista.