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Don’t Let a Summer Drought Catch You Off-Guard

Summer is fast approaching, and that means hotter, drier weather for many parts of the country. This summer may not repeat the scorching temperatures and widespread drought conditions of last year, but it is best to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. You can’t control the weather, but you can control how you position your water utility for a drought and water shortages.


By doing a little planning now, you are simply bringing the future into the present so you can do something about it today. Establishing a water shortage response plan will help your system set up unique “triggers” or weak links in your system that can be used as signals for initiating a specific response. The plan will also show you ways to make the most of the water you treat and will put you on the road to educating your customers on how to responsibly conserve water.

A comprehensive plan should not only identify when a crisis is looming, but how to respond before and even after a crisis has occurred. The process of preparing a plan can be broken down into four distinct phases of action:

  1. Preparation: Preparing for droughts before they occur (for example, by exploring alternative and emergency water sources, establishing drought triggers, evaluating your rates, putting your drought plan in writing, educating your staff and customers, and reducing water loss).
  2. Response: Taking action as a drought begins to put a strain on your system and your community (for example, determining if demand reduction or supply augmentation—using less or finding more water—is required, implementing water-use restrictions, notifying the public, and activating alternative water sources).
  3. Enforcement: Enforcing water-use restrictions during a drought (for example, fines, water-use surcharges, and ultimately, termination of water service for those customers who simply refuse to do their part).
  4. Return to normal: Ending water-use restrictions once the crisis has passed. It is important that your system emerge from a drought in the same measured stages that you followed when initiating the action (for example, notifying customers and reducing then eliminating restrictions). Remember, droughts rarely end overnight. Returning to normal will generally be completed in stages.

A drought emergency is commonly identified as the point when the loss of supply will result in normal operating conditions of less than 35 psi throughout the entire distribution system.


By the time a water system first recognizes a looming water shortage, it is generally too late to simply increase the supply. There are long lead times involved in drilling a new well, adding plant capacity, or desilting a reservoir. Advanced preparation is the key to properly handling a drought.

One of the most affordable sources of additional water that you can tap into is the water that your system loses on a daily basis. It is very important that every system initiate a leak-detection and a preventative maintenance program long before it begins to feel the heat of a drought. While a water loss of between 10 and 15 percent is generally considered acceptable, if your system is regularly losing in excess of 15 percent of the water it treats each month, you should pinpoint where you are losing water (and money).

Your rate structure (how you charge customers for the water they use) can be an effective tool to use in controlling the demand on your system. Your system may want to consider adopting a rate structure that discourages water use and promotes conservation, such as an increasing block rate. With this rate structure, the customers who use more water also pay more per unit.

By implementing a fair and equitable rate structure that promotes conservation and discourages excessive water use and by getting excessive leakage under control long before you experience a drought, you are taking the first steps in preparing for the future.


Preparing for a drought also requires the basic components of public involvement and public education. An educated, well-informed customer is much more likely to comply with voluntary and mandatory water-use restrictions. Especially if your customers clearly understand what they are being asked to do, when they are supposed to do it, and why, they will have a better chance of actually changing their water-use patterns. For example, a well thought-out campaign that asks customers to adopt voluntary conservation measures can normally save up to 10 percent of normal water demand. Bill stuffers are a cost-effective way to reach out to each of your rate-payers to spread the word about water conservation.

Other ways to implement conservation:

  • high-volume price disincentives
  • system water audits, leak detection and repair
  • promoting ultra-low flush toilets, showerheads, and faucet aerator retrofit programs
  • landscape irrigation audits
  • water waste ordinances and enforcement

Determining drought triggers

Unlike most other types of weather-related natural disasters, droughts develop slowly over the course of months and even years. Because of the almost imperceivable nature of a drought, water system decision makers should identify drought triggers that serve as indicators of potential water supply problems. By identifying and monitoring these “triggers,” you will allow your system to take a gradual approach to dealing with droughts and avoid over- or under-reacting based on the level of available water.

Triggers are generally broken down into two categories: supply-side and demand-side triggers.

Basic supply-side triggers include:

  • well-depth levels: how much water is in your well
  • storage tank recovery: the ability of your pumps to keep up with customer demand
  • reservoir storage: how much water is in your lake or pond
  • stream flow: the amount of water flowing down the river or into your reservoir

Basic demand-side triggers include:

  • plant capacity: how much water can you treat in a given day
  • total daily demand: how much water can you pump from your supply source
  • pump hours: a good indicator of how hard your system is working to provide water

The triggers you identify in your water shortage response plan should be easy for you to monitor and measure. This will help you establish when and what actions your system should take.

Taking action

Once you have recognized that one or more of your identified triggers have occurred, it is time to respond and begin letting your customers know what is expected of them and what they can expect in the coming days and weeks.

This could include such actions as issuing media alerts asking customers to use less water, enforcing outdoor lawn watering restrictions, or even issuing rate changes or drought surcharges designed to force customers to restrict their water usage.

Once the appropriate response plan has been activated, the next step is to enforce the requirements across the board. Many times a little visible enforcement will go a long way in deterring other customers from flaunting the restrictions. It is very important that your water shortage response plan clearly spells out how you will deal with customers who won’t cooperate with water use restrictions. Remember—enforcement must be consistent and nondiscriminatory.