Californians should prepare for another year of brown lawns, strict water restrictions and heightened calls for conservation, as state water managers warned on Thursday that dramatically reduced allocations are at hand. likely again in 2023.
The Department of Water Resources announced an initial allocation of just 5% of supplies requested by the State Water Project – a complex system of reservoirs, canals and dams that acts as a major component of California’s water system, supplying 29 branches which together provide water for around 27 million inhabitants.
Water managers will monitor the progress of the rainy season and reassess the allocation every month until spring, officials said. But California typically receives the bulk of its moisture — both rain and snow — during the winter, and current forecasts point to a fourth straight year of drought despite recent storms.
“California and most of the western US states remain in extreme drought conditions due to climate change, and as water managers we are adapting to these hotter, 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 a fourth consecutive drought year.”
Indeed, heat and drought linked to climate change are rapidly sapping state supplies. Lake Oroville, the State Water Project’s largest reservoir, is only at 55% of its average capacity for this time of year, White said.
Officials said they would continue to assess requests from water suppliers for critical health and safety needs, such as water for fire suppression and sanitation purposes. They are also working with major water rights holders on the Feather River below Lake Oroville to monitor conditions and assess water supply availability if dry conditions persist.
DWR state climatologist Mike Anderson noted that California is ending its driest three-year period on record.
“We find new extremes in every drought and then see that it can get even more extreme as the world continues to warm,” he said.
Although the initial 5% allocation is tight, it marks a slight improvement from last December, when it was at an all-time low of zero percent. The final allocation for 2022 ended up being 5%.
If 2023 ended at 5% again, it would be the third straight year at that amount, according to state data.
For many residents, that means a critical supply “could remain drip-feeding,” said Adel Hagekhalil, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the region’s massive wholesaler.
“After the driest three years in state history, we are certainly hoping for a respite this winter. But the stark reality is that we must be prepared for this historic drought to continue,” Hagekhalil said in a statement. “This initial allocation is an important indicator of what Southern California should be ready for in the coming months: very limited supplies from the State Water Project.”
But state supplies are just one piece of California’s water pie, and conditions are also concerning at the federal level, where drought has so severely undermined the Colorado River that its reservoirs are at risk of reaching dead pool status, or the point at which water falls below the lowest inlet gate of a dam. The river has long been a lifeline for the West, but officials there have also warned the region to brace for painful cuts as they push for reduced use.
Hagekhalil said such warnings, along with the state’s low water allocation, mean everyone in Southern California should reduce their use of imported supplies. State water-dependent areas have already had one- or two-day-a-week outdoor watering restrictions for months, but MWD may soon expand those rules to their entire service area.
“Our initial call for increased conservation across the region will be voluntary, but if we don’t see significant rainfall this winter, Metropolitan may implement a water allocation plan for its entire service area, requiring mandatory restrictions across the region,” he said.
State-level officials said they are considering other actions to help stretch supplies, including a temporary emergency change petition and the reinstallation of an emergency drought salinity barrier in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The move would allow the National Water Resources Control Board to change some flow and salinity requirements in the delta, giving water managers the ability to conserve more supplies upstream, White said.
Some experts have criticized the strategy, particularly from an environmental point of view.
“Temporary emergency change petitions have been used as a way to allow the state to violate minimum water quality standards to protect fish and wildlife in the delta,” said Doug Obegi, attorney. Principal at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “They’re clearly harming delta smelt, salmon and other species, and they’re not actually improving conditions upstream for fish and wildlife.”
Obegi said he instead hopes to see the state reduce its reliance on the delta and invest more in local and regional supplies, including through projects such as MWD’s Pure Water Southern California, which aims to improve considerably the recycling of water in the region.
“It’s these types of investments that will help make Southern California more drought-resistant and create many good-paying jobs,” he said. “Unfortunately, those aren’t short-term fixes, and the fact that we haven’t made those kinds of investments and are really falling behind state recycling targets over the past few decades is part of that. reasons why we are still in the mess we are in.
But state officials also stressed Thursday that adaptation and conservation will be key as climate change continues to alter California’s landscape.
“We are on the cusp of a new era of State Water Project management, as climate change disrupts California’s hydrology schedule, and hotter, drier conditions suck more water into the atmosphere and soil,” DWR Director Karla Nemeth said in a statement. “We all need to adapt and redouble our efforts to conserve this precious resource.”
If storage levels improve as the rainy season progresses, the DWR will consider increasing the allocation, Nemeth said. The state is also working to use new technologies such as aerial snow surveys to help improve its forecasts.
“At the start of the traditional California rainy season, water allocations are typically low due to uncertainty in hydrological forecasts,” Nemeth said. “But the extent to which hotter, drier conditions reduce runoff into rivers, streams and reservoirs means we need to be prepared for all possible outcomes.”
The final allocation will be determined in May or June, officials said.
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