It’s a Little Dry

According to most weather forecasters, this fall has been a little dry so far. It’s not time to panic, but it is time to take stock and think about the coming year. If warm weather persists and rain and snow continue to be elusive, Californians should prepare to manage with less water. Putting aside a little extra cash for water rates would be a wise move. Examining ways to use water more efficiently in residential, industrial, agricultural and institutional settings would not go amiss. Much has already been accomplished, but there is always room for improvement through new technologies.

The Department of Water Resources (DWR) estimates only 10% of requested allocations will be met for State Water Project supply for the coming year. A 10% allocation roughly equates to 422,848-acre feet of water to be shared by 29 state water contractors who serve 27 million Californians and 750,000 acres of farmland. Most years, initial allocations range from 20% to 40%. In 2019 the allocation started at 10% but increased to 20%. The Bureau of Reclamation won’t release its allocation numbers from the Central Valley Project until February 2021.

The State Water Project provides about 30% of water used mostly in the San Joaquin Valley, and about 70% is used for residential, municipal and industrial use, mainly in Southern California but also in the Bay Area. The federal Central Valley Project delivers about 7 million-acre feet of water for agricultural, urban, and wildlife uses—5 million-acre feet for farms and 600,00 million acre-feet for municipal and industrial use mostly in the Central Valley.

More than 75% of California is in drought status ranging from abnormally dry to extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor as of December 1. Abnormally dry indicates that soil is dry, and irrigation delivery should begin early. Extreme drought is much more troubling. In that status, grazing is nonexistent and livestock must be fed expensive supplemental feed, fruit trees bud early, dairy operations close, river levels drop – impeding fish migration, water supply is inadequate for agriculture, wildlife, and urban needs, hydropower declines, and water sanitation becomes a concern. Most of California is in abnormally dry to moderate drought status, which means water supplies should be used conservatively.

Reservoir levels are low this year. Lake Oroville is about 61% of capacity or two-thirds of historical average, according to DWR. Readings at Lake Shasta on December 6 reveal that the reservoir is at 44% of capacity or about 74% of historical average. There is still time for a better outcome. About 90% of precipitation in the Sierra Nevada mountain range occurs between December and April.

Long-range weather forecasts show a continued trend toward a dry winter—not unusual for California, but concerning. This exemplifies the need to diversify the state’s capacity to store water and use it wisely. Every effort should be made to increase water supplies through reuse, recycling, desalination, purification and increased storage.

Valerie Nera, Policy Advocate