After paying 43 years for a new water supply it has never used, the East Bay's largest water district might finally tap the keg.
Continued dry weather the rest of the rain season would cause shortages permitting the East Bay Municipal Utility District to take an emergency supply of Sacramento River water through a $900 million delivery project completed three years ago.
The supply from Freeport five miles south of Sacramento could be an ace in the hole to ease shortages and ward off mandatory rationing for 1.3 million EBMUD customers in Contra Costa and Alameda Counties.
The drought relief would come at a price, though. A temporary increase in water bills of $6 per month per average household would be needed to cover pumping and treatment costs, the water district estimates.
It's too early in the rain season to decide whether it must use the new supply, but EBMUD is preparing the delivery pipes and pumps.
"If we have four or five big storms, we won't need it, " said Eileen White, district manager of water supply and maintenance. "But we're priming the pumps in case we do."
The temporary new source would supplement the district's regular supply of high-quality Mokelumne River river piped from the Sierra foothills to Oakland, Berkeley, Walnut Creek, Richmond and other cities in the district.
"We don't want to put all our eggs in one basket," White said.
But it has been a long road to secure the new supply.
The district signed a federal contract in 1970 for the secondary supply from the federal Bureau of Reclamation, and it has paid the bureau $17 million, required whether or not the water was taken.
Plans for a water delivery pipeline plan were blocked for decades by resistance from Sacramento County and environmentalists.
A truce was reached in 2001 when the East Bay district and Sacramento County agreed on a $900 million joint project to deliver water to both Sacramento County and the East Bay. EBMUD put up $460 million as its share.
Under the contract, the East Bay temporarily can take up to 100 million gallons a day of Sacramento River water. The district typically uses about 170 million gallons per day of Mokelumne River water.
There's a catch in the contract, however. EBMUD is eligible to tap the Sacramento River water if in March it forecasts that its reservoirs will have less than 500,000 acre feet of water in the fall.
The seven-member elected water board will make the call whether to take the water.
"If we need the water, I think we should use it to avoid the economic impact that mandatory rationing would have on our customers, " said John Coleman, a water board member from Lafayette. "It gives us options. The areas facing the most severe shortages this year are ones that rely on a single source."
Rationing, he said, would hurt consumers and businesses, especially gardeners and landscapers whose jobs depend on irrigated lawns and plants.
EBMUD board President Andy Katz said deciding whether to take the Sacramento River supply depends on the severity of shortages.
"We're fortunate to have the option of using the Freeport water," Katz said "On the other hand, we have to consider the cost to our customers of perhaps $6 per month per household."
Katz and Coleman said they wish a series of storms would cover the Sierra in a thick blanket of snow.
So far, that hasn't happened. Snow levels measure just 1.6 inches, 9 percent of normal, in the Mokelumne River basin.
Water district staff will present a water supply update at the EBMUD board meeting 1:15 p.m. Tuesday at district headquarters, 375 11th St., Oakland.
Contact Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267. Follow him at Twitter.com/deniscuff.
EBMUD staff will present a water supply update at the district board meeting 1:15 p.m. Tuesday at district headquarters, 375 11th St., Oakland.