Spring Arrives across a Dry West

Springtime officially arrived last week across a region challenged by exceedingly dry conditions. States across the American West have received precious little precipitation in recent months, with conditions most severe in portions of the Colorado River watershed.

drought map of northern CA dated March 23

In California, a lack of snow and rain in recent months has evolved into a second consecutive dry winter, and forecasts indicate no additional storms in coming weeks. In our Mediterranean climate, where most precipitation falls during winter months, extended dry winters translate into diminished water supplies and concerning environmental conditions in our river systems. This year, dry conditions are impacting snowpack, reservoir storage, groundwater supplies, and habitat for fish and wildlife. Looking forward, we’ll likely need to utilize current water resources until the fall brings the possibility of more rain and snow.

With lessons from the last drought fresh on our minds, we have taken steps to address our current conditions:

  • The State Water Resources Control Board has identified water suppliers at extreme financial risk that may need additional support due to the combined impacts of COVID and drought.
  • The Department of Water Resources (DWR) has updated its Dry Well website that tracks reports of water supply outages.
  • DWR has provided our Department of Fish and Wildlife a Drought Contingency Plan that explains how it will manage the State Water Project in a manner that protects fish and wildlife.
  • Our agencies have worked together to simplify the process to transfer water from willing sellers to buyers—an important option during drought conditions.

Our state agencies took additional early action this week:

On Monday, our colleagues at the State Water Resources Control Board issued letters to approximately 40,000 water right holders across the state, advising them to plan for potential shortages by closely managing water use. It is important to note that state water regulators have not taken a more serious step of directing water users to limit water diversions, but we are all monitoring conditions closely.

On Tuesday, our team at DWR announced that its network of reservoirs and canals, the State Water Project, would reduce its estimated deliveries this year from 10 percent of requested amounts to five percent. The State Water Project conveys water from rivers flowing out of the Sierra Nevada mountains to 29 public water agencies in the Bay Area, San Joaquin Valley, and Southern California. This reduced allocation reflects the need to manage water stored in reservoirs carefully in case next winter is dry, too. DWR expects to finalize the State Water Project allocation in May.

Similarly, the operator of the biggest water project in California, our partners at the federal U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, announced on Tuesday that due to worsening hydrologic conditions, many of its agricultural customers in the San Joaquin Valley should not expect delivery of a five percent allocation of water until further notice.

In California’s highly engineered water system, major water project reservoirs including (federally operated) Shasta and (state operated) Oroville are important sources of cold water to sustain salmon eggs and fry through warm seasons and dry years, so water project managers also are balancing those needs in close coordination with fish and wildlife agencies and water quality regulators.

Large, urban water districts have managed drought conditions relatively well. Many of these districts have expanded water conservation, increased water recycling, and diversified water supplies in recent years. As a result, most Californians will not face a water shortage during this second straight dry winter. Nevertheless, forward-thinking water agencies are using this moment to remind residents of the importance of conserving water.

Small, rural systems dependent upon a limited number of groundwater wells are most vulnerable to dry conditions. Yesterday, DWR released a report to help address drought vulnerabilities in small drinking water systems. Developed with a broad set of leaders and groups, this report highlights the importance of drought contingency and emergency response plans. It also evaluates the water shortage risk of more than 4,000 small water suppliers to assist implementation of the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Act and other state programs.

Experience is the best teacher, and the epic drought of 2012-16 has better prepared us for the extended dry conditions we now face. Early actions taken by state agencies this week position us to manage extended drought conditions. Moving forward, we’ll continue to work across our state agencies in one state team to monitor conditions, plan for contingencies, and take actions where needed. In the coming months, close coordination with our federal and local partners and clear communication with the broader public will be essential.

California has demonstrated time and again our resilience to extended dry periods. As this current challenge unfolds, we’ll utilize our collective experience and collaboration to manage water systems in a way that protects communities, the economy, and our remarkable natural environment.