Q&A: What summer drought means for Tacoma water users

Glen George
Glen George Courtesy photo

Hot, dry weather made this summer a tough one for Tacoma’s water system, says Glen George, the city’s water supply manager.

The 51-year-old explained to The News Tribune what the drought means for Tacoma’s water supply and what the rest of the year might look like.

Residents are being asked to cut back on their water use, and the city later might consider other measures to bolster the supply and account for the millions of gallons of water the city needs each day.

Question: How has this summer compared to others?

Answer: The year started out really unusual in that we had absolutely zero snow pack. That was unprecedented. Weather-wise, it’s been one of the worst years I’ve ever seen. We had 12 days above 90 degrees. We normally get only two.

Q: What does that mean water-wise?

A: We have a water shortage plan. Stage One is called the advisory stage. That’s when we’re letting people know we could have a water supply issue later in the year. We did that in the June timeframe.

It turned out that the weather forecast kept getting worse. Aug. 11 we made the decision to go to (the voluntary stage). We thought the long-range weather forecast was bad enough to need to ask our customers for some help.

We were looking for about a 10 percent savings from our projected water use for the remainder of the season. That would have been about a billion gallons of water; 7 to 8 million a day is what we’re trying to save.

The third stage would be mandatory, and we really don’t think that we’re going to get there this year. Instead of asking people not to water their lawns, we would mandate it.

Q: Have people been listening to the request?

A: We think they have responded. We’re tracking it on a daily basis. The first week after the advisory, Tacoma saw about an 11 percent drop in our demand.

We had a group of our large irrigators meet us — people like Metro Parks and several of the school districts — and many of them signed a pledge to cut their water use back.

We’ve got people calling us and telling us how they’re saving water. They’re calling in and asking if that’s enough, worried they’re not doing enough to help us.

Q: How can a consumer tell what saving 10 percent looks like?

A: If (you stop) your lawn watering and just water your plants a couple times a week, and you’re fixing all your leaks and washing full loads of clothes, that’s really all we’re asking for. That’s going to be about 10 percent aggregate.

Not watering your lawn will not kill it; it will just make it go dormant until the rain comes back.

Q: What can people do if they see others who aren’t cutting back?

A: Talk to your neighbor and bring it to their attention. If you don’t feel comfortable, you can call us (253-502-8247) and we’ll try to contact that individual and bring it to their attention.

It’s up to them on whether they want to comply or not. We wouldn’t drop the hammer or anything, but we’d explain to them why it would help us if they could not water.

Q: Where does our water come from?

A: In a normal year, about 95 percent of our water comes from the Green River, about 30 miles east of Tacoma, and then another 5 percent would come from our well water, which is right underneath the city proper.

This year, however, is different.

We’ve been trying to reduce our footprint on the Green River, to keep water in the river for fish and endangered species. We’re probably using between 40 percent and 60 percent well water on any given day all summer.

Q: Has the rain we received the past couple weeks helped?

A: I’d say yes and no. The volume of rain has not been sufficient to make us stop worrying yet. In the long-run, we really need sustained fall rain. We would stay in the voluntary stage until the rains do come back.

They’re predicting warmer and drier conditions all the way out through the beginning of next year.

Assuming the savings continue like they are, we have adequate supply through the fall, and we only begin to worry if the rains don’t come back until, let’s just say, the middle of December.

Q: What happens if we don’t get serious rain until then?

A: We’ve been thinking of other sources of water we could possibly do. We have a lake up in our water shed we could pump. It’s called Eagle Lake. We’re applying for permits to pump that. We did pump it in 1987.

We’re talking about purchasing water from one of our neighbors. We’re in discussions right now with Lakehaven Utility District.

You add those together, and you’re at another billion gallons.

Q: Anything else people should know about the water situation?

A: We’ve hammered this home I think sufficiently, but I’ll say it one more time: We’re asking our customers for 10 percent savings. We’ve appreciated their help so far, and we’ll appreciate their continued help.