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California ends some water limits after storms ease drought

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Posted at 11:02 AM, Mar 24, 2023

DUNNIGAN, Calif. (AP) — California Gov. Gavin Newsom ended some of the state's water restrictions on Friday because a winter of relentless rain and snow has replenished the state's reservoirs and eased fears of a shortage after three years of severe drought.

He also announced local agencies that supply water to 27 million people and many farmers would get much more from state supplies than originally planned. But Newsom did not declare an end to the drought, warning much of the state is still suffering from its lingering effects.

“Are we out of the drought? Is the drought over in the state of California?” Newsom said. “I want to affirm your instinct that it should be, it feels like it is. It is — and continues to be — complicated. And I know that's disappointing for some because it would be nice to have a governor say the drought is over.”

Newsom said he would stop asking people to voluntarily cut their water use by 15%, a request he first made nearly two years ago while standing at the edge of a nearly dry Lopez Lake in the state's Central Coast region — a lake that today is so full from recent storms it is almost spilling over. Californians never met Newsom’s call for that level of conservation — as of January the cumulative savings were just 6.2%.

The governor also said he would ease rules requiring local water agencies to impose restrictions on customers. That order will impact people in different ways depending on where they live. For most people, it means they won't be limited to watering their lawns on only certain days of the week or at certain times of the day. Other restrictions remain in place, including a ban on watering decorative grass for businesses.

Newsom could ease restrictions in part because state officials said California's reservoirs are so full they will more than double the amount of drinking water cities will get this year compared to a previous allocation announced last month. Water districts that serve 27 million people will get at least 75% of the water they requested from state supplies. Last year, they only got 5% as California endured three of the driest years ever since modern recordkeeping began in 1896.

“Is the drought over? Are we going back to normal? I would say no,” Wade Crowfoot, Newsom’s secretary of the California Department of Natural Resources, said Thursday. “It’s really adjusting to a new normal, and that is intensifying extremes — what the governor has called ‘weather whiplash.’”

Three years of little rain or snow have depleted reservoirs to the point the state couldn't generate electricity from hydroelectric power plants. It dried up wells in rural areas and state officials had to truck in water supplies for some communities. And it reduced the flow of the state's major rivers and streams, killing off endangered species of fish and other species.

But since December, no less than 12 powerful storms have hit California, packing so much rain and snow that meteorologists call them “atmospheric rivers.” These storms have flooded homes, closed ski resorts and trapped people in mountain communities for days with no electricity, prompting emergency declarations from President Joe Biden.

Amid all that carnage, water has steadily poured into the state's reservoirs. Of California's 17 major reservoirs, 12 of them are either at or above their historical averages for this time of year.

And more water is coming. Statewide, the amount of snow piled up in the mountains is already 223% above the April 1 average — the date when the snowpack is typically at its peak. Most of that snow will melt in the coming months, flowing into reservoirs and posing more flooding threats downstream.

Newsom did not declare an end to the drought on Friday, even though the U.S. Drought Monitor reported this week that much of the state — including the major population centers along the coast and farmland in the Central Valley — are not in drought.

Water shortage concerns remain for some areas of the state, including a sizeable chunk of Southern California that relies on water from the Colorado River — a basin that remains in drought. In the north part of the state, portions of the Klamath River basin are still listed as in “severe drought.”

“We want to avoid this thought that it’s a back to normal situation, because again, in a lot of places, it simply isn’t,” Crowfoot said. “We need to move beyond this idea that we use water in a traditional way, and then when there’s a drought we conserve water.”

California doesn't have enough room in its reservoirs to store all of the water from these storms. In fact, some reservoirs are having to release water to make room for new storms coming next week and snowmelt in the spring. That's why the Newsom administration has given farmers permission to take water out of the rivers and flood some of their fields, with the water seeping back underground to refill groundwater basins.

Friday, Newsom made his drought announcement at one of those projects, a farm in the community of Dunnigan, off of Interstate 5 about 37 miles (60 kilometers) northwest of Sacramento. State officials hope projects like these will replenish some of the groundwater that was pumped out during the drought.