California to see more brown lawns and water restrictions
- US News
- December 2, 2022
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Californians should brace themselves for another year of brown lawns, tight water restrictions and increased calls for conservation, as state water managers warned Thursday that another sharply reduced allocation is likely in 2023.
The Department of Water Resources announced an initial allocation of just 5% of requested supplies from the State Water Project — a complex system of reservoirs, canals, and dams that functions as a major component of California’s water system, serving 29 agencies that collectively provide water for about 27 million inhabitants.
Water managers will monitor the development of the rainy season and reevaluate the allocation every month until spring, officials said. But California typically gets most of its moisture — both rain and snow — in the winter, and current forecasts are for a fourth straight year of drought, despite recent storms.
“California and most western U.S. states continue to experience extreme drought conditions caused by climate change, and as water managers we are adapting to these hotter and drier conditions,” said Molly White, operations manager for the State Water Project. “We are taking a very cautious approach to planning for next year should next year be the fourth drought year in a row.”
Indeed, the heat and drought caused by climate change are rapidly depleting the state’s supplies. Lake Oroville, the State Water Project’s largest reservoir, has only 55% of its average capacity at this time of year, White said.
Officials said they would continue to review requests from water utilities for critical health and safety needs, such as: B. Water for firefighting and sanitation purposes. They are also working with senior water rights holders on the Feather River downstream of Lake Oroville to monitor conditions and assess water supply availability should the drought persist.
Mike Anderson, DWR’s state climatologist, noted that California is rounding out its driest three-year stretch on record.
“We find new extremes with every drought and then realize that it can get even more extreme as the world continues to warm,” he said.
Although the initial allocation of 5% is tight, it represents a slight improvement from last December when it was an all-time low of zero percent. Finally, the final allocation for 2022 was 5%.
If 2023 returns to 5%, it would be the third year in a row at that rate, according to government data.
For many residents, that means a critical supply “could remain at a trickle,” said Adel Hagekhalil, general manager of Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District, the region’s largest wholesaler.
“After the three driest years in the state’s history, we’re certainly hoping for some respite this winter. But the harsh reality is we must be prepared for this historic drought to continue,” Hagekhalil said in a statement. “This initial allocation is a key indicator of what Southern California should be ready for in the coming months: very limited supplies from the State Water Project.”
But state supply is just a slice of California’s water pie, and conditions are of similar concern at the federal level, where the drought has hit the Colorado River so badly it’s in danger of reaching “dead basin” status, or the point where water drops below the lowest inlet valve. The river has long been a lifeline for the West, but officials have also warned the region to brace for painful cuts as they push for reduced use.
Hagekhalil said such warnings, coupled with the low state water allocation, mean everyone in Southern California should reduce their use of imported supplies. State water-dependent areas have had restrictions on outdoor watering one or two days a week for months, but the MWD may soon extend these rules to its entire service area.
“Our initial call for increased environmental protection across the region will be voluntary, but if we don’t see significant rainfall this winter, Metropolitan may implement a water supply allocation plan for its entire service area that will require mandatory region-wide restrictions,” he said.
State-level officials said they are considering other measures to extend supplies, including a temporary change-of-urgency petition and reinstallation of an emergency drought salinity barrier in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The move would allow the state Water Resources Control Board to change certain runoff and salinity requirements in the delta, giving water managers the opportunity to conserve more supplies upstream, White said.
Some experts criticized the strategy, especially from an ecological point of view.
“The petitions to temporarily change the urgency were used to allow the state to violate minimum water quality standards to protect fish and wildlife in the delta,” said Doug Obegi, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “They clearly harm the delta smelt, salmon and other species, and they don’t really improve upstream conditions for fish and wildlife.”
Obegi said he instead hopes the state will reduce its reliance on the delta and invest more in local and regional supplies, including through projects like the MWD’s Pure Water Southern California, which aims to significantly improve water recycling in the region .
“It’s these types of investments that will help make Southern California more drought resilient and create a lot of good-paying jobs in the process,” he said. “Unfortunately, these aren’t short-term solutions, and the fact that we haven’t made those types of investments and have fallen really far short of the state’s recycling goals over the past several decades is one of the reasons we’re still in this mess, in to which we are stuck.”
But state officials also emphasized Thursday that adaptation and conservation will be critical as climate change continues to transform California’s landscape.
“We are at the dawn of a new era in state water project management as a changing climate disrupts the timing of California’s hydrology, and hotter and drier conditions absorb more water into the atmosphere and soil,” DWR Director Karla Nemeth said in a statement. “We all need to adjust and redouble our efforts to conserve this precious resource.”
Should storage levels improve over the rainy season, the DWR will consider increasing the allocation, Nemeth said. The state is also working to use new technology, such as aerial snow surveys, to improve its forecasts.
“This early in California’s traditional wet season, water allocations are typically low due to uncertainties in hydrological forecasts,” Nemeth said. “But the extent to which hotter and drier conditions are reducing runoff into rivers, streams and reservoirs means we need to be prepared for any impact.”
The final allocation will be determined in May or June, officials said.