Lake Oroville, one of California's largest reservoirs, is only 59% of capacity as of Dec. 12 — despite recent rains and snow. The reservoir is shown here in May 2022. Photo by Andrew Innerarity, California Department of Water Resources
By ALASTAIR BLAND, CalMatters
December has delivered a powerful punch of storms to California. But the wet weather comes with a dry dose of reality: The state’s largest reservoirs remain badly depleted, projected water deliveries are low, wells are drying up, and the Colorado River’s water, already diminished by a megadrought, is severely overallocated.
Throughout California, urban water managers are bracing for a fourth consecutive drought year. Nearly one out of every five water agencies — 76 out of 414 — in a recent state survey predict that they won’t have enough water to meet demand next year. That means they are likely to impose more severe restrictions on customers, with some Southern California providers considering a ban on all outdoor watering.
While December’s rain and snow show promise, water managers remember the same thing happened last year — epic early storms followed by the driest January through March in California’s recorded history.
“We’re not counting any chickens just yet,” said Andrea Pook, a spokesperson for the East Bay Municipal Utility District, which delivers water to 1.4 million Bay Area residents. The district’s water supply is in relatively good shape, with a 9% water deficit projected through the first half of 2023.
Last week the state announced an emergency regulation extending its ban on “wasteful water practices” through 2023. Included are watering while it’s raining, running decorative fountains without recirculating flows and washing vehicles with hoses not fitted with automatic shutoff nozzles, among others.
Some regions of California have more water than they need. Sacramento reported a 173% surplus for 2023 to state officials. City spokesperson Carlos Eliason said Sacramento has a healthy system of community wells to draw from in addition to the Sacramento and American rivers.
The Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District, serving 90,000 people in and around Eureka, reported an 834% surplus for 2023. Its main reservoir typically fills to the brim every year.
“Unfortunately, our system isn’t connected to other systems, so we can’t do anything to help our neighbors in other parts of the state, but we’d like to,” said General Manager John Friedenbach.
Other areas will probably cruise through the drought with some basic conservation efforts. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission reported a 5% shortage for 2023 and the Santa Clara Valley Water District, serving the South Bay and Peninsula, has a shortfall of 11%.
Sonoma County’s major reservoir was at just 39% of capacity last week, its lowest level ever recorded, but Don Seymour, the county water agency’s deputy chief engineer, said there is no reason to panic. “That’s still a lot of water,” he said. “We could stretch that out into the spring of 2024.”
Cities dependent on state aqueduct are hit hard
But other regions of the state — mostly in Southern California — aren’t as fortunate. Millions of Southern Californians will likely face outdoor watering restrictions or even bans, with probable exceptions made for the hand-watering of trees.
The Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, for instance, expects a 63% shortage based on average historical demand. The district serves 77,000 people in Agoura Hills, Calabasas and other nearby communities in western Los Angeles County.
“That means that if a household normally uses 100 gallons of water, we’ll be able to deliver 37 gallons,” said Las Virgenes’ public affairs officer Mike McNutt.
The district purchases between 20,000 and 25,000 acre-feet of imported water annually from the region’s wholesaler, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. This year that delivery could drop to 11,000 acre-feet, according to John Zhao, the district’s director of facilities and operations.
McNutt said residents have already cut water use by 35% from pre-drought levels, mostly from outdoor conservation. Most homes in the region, he said, are fully outfitted with high-efficiency appliances, toilets and showerheads. That means there is limited room to improve without more drastic action, which the district hopes to avoid.
But if drought conditions continue, Las Virgenes customers could be hit with a total outdoor watering ban in 2023 — a step up from the region’s one-day-per-week allowance implemented last spring by the Metropolitan Water District.
Las Virgenes has a 10,000-acre-foot reservoir to fall back on, and McNutt said the district may also seek transfers of water from nearby communities with water to spare — arrangements he said would have to be negotiated through the Metropolitan Water District.
Most Southern Californians — 27 million people — rely at least partially on the State Water Project, a system of dams and canals that moves water from the Sacramento Valley to Southern California. On Dec. 1, the Department of Water Resources announced it will initially allocate just 5% of the supply that water districts requested from the state — bad news for those with no other water source.
“We are 100% reliant on the State Water Project,” McNutt said.
The Ventura County communities of Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley face a similar dependency on the State Water Project.
“We wouldn’t exist without that imported water,” said Wanda Moyer, Simi Valley’s water conservation coordinator.
Simi Valley is expecting a 68% shortage in 2023 and will implement a total outdoor watering ban if the state’s delivery projections don’t improve, Moyer said.
In June, when Metropolitan’s once-weekly watering limit for gardens and lawns took effect, “people were angry,” she said.
Breaking the rules triggered a warning the first time, then fines. Next year, Simi Valley’s repeat offenders may face a tactical measure – the use of water restrictors.
These tools are basically washers with a hole in the center. Inserted inside a pipe, a restrictor allows just a trickle of water to pass. Las Virgenes has been using them since June on repeat water-use offenders. The district, which has installed more than 200 restrictors, keeps the device in place for two weeks before removing it, McNutt said. If violations continue, it’s reinstalled for three months, he said.
Moyer said scofflaws whose water pipes are fitted with restrictors “will be taking a military-type shower.”
Water connections serving non-residential sprinklers for lawns and other landscaping could be shut off completely, she said, following multiple violations.
Read more of ‘Is California’s Drought Over? Water Providers Still Predict Shortages Next Year’ on CalMatters.
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