Outingdale'a water struggle spreading across state
OUTINGDALE -- In the small community of Outingdale in rugged El Dorado County, neighbors Mary Callahan and Steve White confess they used to leave the water running while brushing their teeth. No more.
Now, in addition to turning that tap off, they have stopped filling outdoor birdbaths and cut back on landscape watering. They bathe less and take “Navy showers” when they do, collecting the outflow in buckets and jugs as they wait for the water to heat up. They tell their visitors to live by these rules as well.
Outingdale is one of the first communities in Northern California to know what the worst drought since 1977 really feels like. Residents have been told by the El Dorado Irrigation District, their water provider, to consume no more than 68 gallons of water per person per day. That’s about one-third of the state average. Their use is being monitored by water meters at each home.
Millions more Californians could find themselves in a similar situation as ...
“It’s not a pleasant thing that’s going on here,” said Callahan, who retired to Outingdale with husband, Dennis, about 15 years ago. They recently asked their daughter and three young grandsons to cancel their annual summer visit because there isn’t enough water to go around. “It breaks my heart because I don’t get to see them very much.”
Outingdale, founded in the 1920s, consists of about 150 small homes on the flank of a forested canyon alongside the middle fork of the Cosumnes River. Residents enjoy more than a mile of riverfront access, including shaded beaches and deep, clear swimming holes that create a cool refuge amid the hot Sierra Nevada foothills.
That river is also their only source of tap water. Thanks to a state water right held by the El Dorado Irrigation District, the river is piped into two holding tanks, treated with chlorine, then delivered to homes and fire hydrants.
The water rationing in Outingdale was imposed because the State Water Resources Control Board ordered the irrigation district to stop using that water right. It is one of more than 9,500 so-called “curtailment” orders imposed on junior water rights – those awarded by the state after 1914 – to cope with the drought.
The district continues to pipe Cosumnes River water to the homes in Outingdale, albeit at drastically reduced levels. The curtailment order allows exemptions in cases where there is no other water supply for health and safety purposes. The water district set the 68-gallon limit because that is what the state Department of Water Resources estimates is the minimum necessary for cooking, bathing and other basic personal needs.
“Everything is different,” said Steve Mensik, another Outingdale resident, who says he is flushing the toilet less and showering less often. “If it gets any worse by the time the end of summer gets here, this could not be a pleasant place to be around. I say that jokingly.”
The water-rights curtailments are the first ordered by the state on such a massive scale since the drought of 1976-77. That was the worst drought California has ever seen. But state officials are concerned the present situation will eclipse that.
“We know this year is going to have the worst impact of any drought in modern times,” Felicia Marcus, the water board’s chairwoman, said during a meeting in Sacramento last week that focused on the state’s poor progress on water conservation so far this year. “If it doesn’t rain this winter, it’s going to be way worse. So we’re staring at a disaster of incalculable proportions.”
Thousands fail to comply
The state’s curtailment orders follow procedures set in old California water law. The rules require that in times of scarcity, “senior” water rights – those awarded before 1914, the year California adopted its system of water regulation – must be given priority access to any water that’s available. As a result, junior diversions were...