Weeks of record rainfall in California won’t be enough to end a severe drought, but it will provide public water agencies that serve 27 million people with far more water than providers were told a month ago, they announced. state officials on Thursday.
The Department of Water Resources said public water agencies will now get 30% of what they had asked for, up from 5% that officials had previously announced in December. That’s because during the first three weeks of January, nine atmospheric rivers dumped an estimated 32 trillion gallons of rain and snow on California. It was enough water to increase storage at the state’s two largest reservoirs by a combined 66%.
“We’re not out of the California drought, but this certainly makes a significant dent,” said Karla Nemeth, director of the California Department of Water Resources.
California pumps water from its major rivers and streams and stores it in a bunch of reservoirs known as the State Water Project. State officials then deliver that water to 29 public agencies that supply drinking water to the state’s major population centers and irrigate 1,151 square miles (2,981 square kilometers) of farmland.
Years of drought have depleted many of those reservoirs to dangerously low levels, forcing significant cutbacks at water agencies across the state. Many agencies placed mandatory restrictions on customers, and Governor Gavin Newsom called on individuals and businesses to voluntarily reduce their water use by 15%.
The Southern California Metropolitan Water District, which includes major population centers like Los Angeles and San Diego counties, declared a drought emergency for all of its 19 million customers last month. It has imposed mandatory restrictions on 7 million customers, meaning they can only water their lawns one day a week.
Thursday’s announcement did not automatically end those restrictions. Adel Hagekhalil, the district’s general manager, said the additional water “will certainly help the communities most affected by this drought.” But he cautioned that “Southern California’s water challenges are far from over.”
The district gets approximately one-third of its water from the State Water Project, one-third from the Colorado River, and one-third from other sources. The Colorado River system has benefited from recent storms, but not to the same extent as California’s water system. Hagekhalil warned that southern California could “see significant drawdowns” of the Colorado River starting next year.
“To replenish local storage and reduce reliance on imported supplies, we all need to use water as efficiently as possible,” he said.
The US Drought Monitor said Thursday that severe drought has been reduced to moderate drought in most of the San Joaquin Valley and the lowest category, freak drought, has replaced moderate drought along the entire Central Coast. , including Monterey Bay.
However, most of the state remains in moderate to severe drought, with only a fraction on the north coast completely free of drought.
The worst drought categories, exceptional and extreme, were removed from California earlier this month.
Recent storms have highlighted how difficult it is to manage water in the West, where long dry spells are often punctuated by heavy periods of rain and snow that have officials scrambling to capture everything before it flows. towards the Pacific Ocean. Environmental regulations limit the amount of water state officials can remove from rivers, making sure to protect the habitat of endangered fish species.
But when strong storms hit, like the ones that hit the state in January, state officials say they are constrained more by aging infrastructure than environmental regulations. The State Water Project has been pumping at full capacity for the past several weeks, drawing water at 9,500 cubic feet per second (269 cubic meters per second). Meanwhile, Nemeth said the water is rushing into the ocean at 150,000 cubic feet per second (4,247 cubic meters per second).
California is trying to build seven new water storage projects, paid for in part by a $7.5 billion bond approved by voters in 2014. But those projects have taken nearly a decade to get off the ground amid a lengthy permitting process and approval.
Meanwhile, 17 years have passed since the State Water Project delivered 100% of its water allocation. State officials say part of the problem is climate change that causes more rain to evaporate into warmer air and seep into drier soil instead of flowing into the state’s rivers and streams.
State officials said Thursday they are cautiously optimistic about the rest of this year. California has twice as much snow in the Sierra Nevada compared to its historical average, and Thursday’s water announcement did not include how much water it will generate when it melts in the spring.
Heavy rain has saturated the soil, which means that when the snow melts in the Sierra Nevada this spring, less water will be absorbed by the dry ground and more will flow into the state’s reservoirs.
Still, even with the string of heavy rains, California’s water year, which runs from October 1 to September 30, is likely to be average.
“We can have intense dry conditions and intense wet conditions all in the same year,” Nemeth said.