Farmworkers adjust sprinkler coverage south of Bakersfield.
Farmworkers adjust sprinkler coverage south of Bakersfield. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Civic Life

California slashes State Water Project allocation as year begins with record dryness

After a record-dry start to 2022, California water officials have slashed State Water Project allocations from 15% to 5%.

Drained reservoirs. Dwindling snowpack. Bone-dry soils.

After a record dry start to 2022, California water officials announced Friday that they were cutting State Water Project allocations from 15% to 5%, and warned residents to brace for a third year of drought.

The news came only months after a rainy December offered temporary drought relief and prompted officials to announce a modest increase in previously allocated supplies. But after the driest January and February on record — and a March on track to follow suit — officials said they had to make reductions.

“We are experiencing climate change whiplash in real time with extreme swings between wet and dry conditions,” read a statement from Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth. “That means adjusting quickly based on the data and science.”

The State Water Project is a complex system of reservoirs, canals and dams that acts as a major component of California’s water system, feeding 29 water agencies that together provide water for about 27 million residents. Officials said they will continue to provide critical health and safety needs for the agencies in addition to the 5% allocation.

Other water sources for the region, such as the Colorado River, are also suffering from drought, which experts say has been intensified by climate change. The American Southwest has experienced its driest 22-year period in 1,200 years, research shows.

Given the current conditions, Heather Cooley, a water researcher at the Pacific Institute, said the state’s decision makes sense.

“Reservoirs are low, the snowpack is low, so we’re not going to see much refilling of those reservoirs as the snow melts, and as a result we just have less water to go around,” Cooley said Friday. “I do think a reduction in the allocation is appropriate and warranted.”

The reduced allocation is being met with increased calls for conservation. Earlier this week, officials with the State Water Resources Control Board announced that Californians significantly backslid in their efforts to save, and in fact used 2.6% more water in January compared with the same month in the baseline year of 2020.

In July, Gov. Gavin Newsom called on all state residents to voluntarily reduce water usage by 15%. Californians came far short of that target, with about 6.4% savings between July and the end of January, data show.

Yet Newsom has so far stopped short of instituting mandatory restrictions — something his predecessor Jerry Brown did about two years into the last drought.

Cooley, of the Pacific Institute, said a statewide order from Newsom is overdue.

“I think we need a mandate,” she said. “It’s a call to action. It really sends a message — and it’s an important message — that this is a serious drought, and we need to be taking proactive measures to save our water.”

The reduction announced Friday will likely play out differently across the state, Cooley said. Some local agencies depend greatly on supplies from the State Water Project, while others have more access to alternative sources, such as groundwater or recycled water facilities.

“The more diversified you are, the less reliant you are on the State Water Project, the better,” she said. “But not every community is able to do that.”

The largest urban water supplier in Southern California, the Metropolitan Water District, said about 30% of the region’s water comes from the State Water Project.

Some areas within the MWD’s region — including parts of Ventura, Los Angeles and San Bernardino Counties — are particularly reliant on State Water Project supplies, and residents and businesses in those communities need to reduce their water use immediately, general manager Adel Hagekhalil said.

“Today’s announcement by the state is another stark indicator of our increasingly stressed water supply and the gravity of the situation we are facing,” read a statement from Hagekhalil. “We’re getting a fraction of what we used to receive — lower deliveries than any time in history.”

When asked how Friday’s reduction could impact the MWD’s operations, spokeswoman Rebecca Kimitch said the agency needs to reserve State Water Project supplies for areas that are highly reliant on it and redirect other areas to supplies from the Colorado River and other alternative sources. They are also using pumps to push more Colorado River water to State Water dependent areas, she said.

“This 5% allocation is really, really significant for this area,” Kimitch said. “Even with all of these operational changes we’ve made, we need the people in those communities to significantly, dramatically cut back their water use given this allocation.”

As a wholesaler, the MWD has little power to implement restrictions on the public, she said, but could potentially set allocation caps for member agencies that cost money to exceed, a tool they have used in the past. She noted that 2022 is the third year in a row of low allocations, and the second consecutive year at 5%.

“Five followed by five — this is climate change,” Kimitch said. “These are absolutely unprecedented scenarios we’re finding ourselves in.”

Across the state, supplies are shrinking rapidly in response to the drying conditions. As of Friday, the statewide Sierra snowpack, most of which came from the heavy snowstorms in December, had fallen to 55% of average for the date, officials said.

Meanwhile, statewide reservoir levels were about 70% of average.

As a result, managers plan to prioritize water releases from Lake Oroville — the State Water Project’s largest reservoir — to “maintain [Sacramento-San Joaquin River] Delta water quality, protect endangered species and meet senior water right needs,” the Department of Water Resources said.

Last year, drought conditions compelled officials to shut down Lake Oroville’s hydroelectric power plant for the first time since its completion in 1967. It came back online at the start of the year after December’s storms.

On Friday, the Department of Water Resources said it will also submit a revised “temporary urgency change petition” that will enable deviations from typical water rights and usages through June, essentially allowing officials to release less water into the Delta and conserve stored water in the Oroville, Shasta and Folsom reservoirs.

A similar petition submitted earlier in the year was withdrawn after December storms, but the “new application is necessary due to dramatically changing conditions,” officials said.

They are also planning to refill a notch in the Emergency Drought Salinity Barrier in the Delta, which will allow for reduced flows from upstream reservoirs through the end of November.

Some experts have been critical of the state’s strategy and response.

“They don’t really have a plan, other than to pray for rain and let other folks bear the worst consequences of their failures to plan,” said Doug Obegi, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Obegi also expressed concern that the temporary urgency change petition would enable the state to forgo water quality standards in the Delta that “protect farms, cities and fish and wildlife.”

“If the TUCP is granted it is likely that the violation of water quality objectives will lead to greater harmful algal blooms that threaten communities in Stockton and elsewhere, not to mention native fish and wildlife,” he said via email.

Officials have fewer and fewer options after the dry start to the year. March, typically the last month of California’s rainy season, is likely to end on a dry note, according to a precipitation outlook from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Drought Monitor shows that much of the state is under severe drought conditions, with an increasingly large area slipping into the “extreme drought” classification.

The Department of Water Resources will make another assessment of the State Water Project allocation following the next snow survey on April 1, officials said. A final allocation for the water year is typically announced in May or June.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.