California slashes supplies to water agencies amid record drought

A cracked lake bed at Nicasio Reservoir during a drought in Nicasio, California, on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021.

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

California water officials on Friday said they are slashing State Water Project allocations from 15% to 5% of normal for certain urban water consumers and farmers, as the state grapples with a third consecutive year of drought.

Water agencies serving roughly 27 million people and 750,000 acres of farmland will receive less water than they requested for this year from state reservoirs amid declining reservoir levels and reduced snowpack.

State officials originally announced a 15% allocation in January after hopes that a wet December would mitigate drought conditions. However, the state is set to experience the driest period on record from January to March in at least a century.

“We are experiencing climate change whiplash in real time with extreme swings between wet and dry conditions,” Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth said in a statement. “That means adjusting quickly based on the data and the science.”

The impact of the cuts will be different across California, since not all agencies depend on water supplies from the State Water Project. The project collects water from rivers in Northern California and delivers it to 29 urban and agricultural water suppliers. Roughly 70% of this water is used for urban areas and industry in Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area, while 30% is used for agriculture in the Central Valley.

The megadrought in the U.S. West has produced the driest two decades in the region in at least 1,200 years, with conditions likely to continue through 2022 and persist for years. Researchers have estimated that 42% of the drought’s severity is attributable to human-caused climate change.

California gets most its water during the winter months, when storms bring snow to the mountain ranges. The state’s reservoir levels have about 70% of average water storage for this time of year. Officials said they will preserve as much water storage as possible in Lake Oroville, the State Water Project’s largest reservoir.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has not implemented mandatory cutbacks but instead asked residents last year to cut household water consumption by 15% during dry conditions. Officials have urged residents to limit outdoor water use and using recycled water for outside projects, take shorter showers and only run the dishwasher and washing machine when full.

So far, residents have failed to conserve water. The state’s urban water use actually increased 2.6% in January compared to the same month in 2020, according to data from the State Water Resources Control Board.

Federal officials last year also ordered the first-ever water cuts for the Colorado River Basin, which impact supplies of water and power for more than 40 million people in the West. Water levels at the two largest reservoirs in the country, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, are at their lowest levels on record. 

California officials said they will continue to provide any unmet critical health and safety needs for all water agencies that contract to receive State Water Project supplies, and will likely announce a final allocation for the water year in May or June.

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