Drought is real and California is now facing water restrictions

Kurtis Alexander
March 23, 2021

State and federal water officials have delivered their most dire warning yet of California’s deepening drought, announcing that water supply shortages are imminent and calling for quick conservation.

Among a handful of drastic actions this week, the powerful State Water Board on Monday began sending notices to California’s 40,000 water users, from small farms to big cities like San Francisco, telling them to brace for cuts. It’s a preliminary step before the possibility of ordering their water draws to stop entirely.

The move is the first major flex of the state’s water rights system since last decade’s five-year drought. It’s also a sign of how similarly dry California has become over the past two years. The water rights system is designed to keep California’s rivers and reservoirs from emptying and lays out the hierarchy under which water users are cut off from the state’s vast, but limited, supplies should the situation worsen.

“I think we all see that hydrologically we’re in a drought,” E. Joaquin Esquivel, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, said in an interview. “And it means the availability of water isn’t there for fulfilling all of the water rights holders.”The many water rights holders, which range from someone pumping a creek for growing corn to a municipality damming a river to serve thousands, will increasingly have to turn to alternative sources in light of the state notices. Groundwater, desalination and purchasing water from more endowed users remain options, as does conservation.State officials said they would likely know by May or June whether they will order water users, based on their place in the water rights hierarchy, to stop taking surface water. The historic rights were generally assigned long ago, on a first-come, first-served basis. Property owners along rivers and creeks also have priority.

How the water is used is not a factor in the state’s curtailments. Officials could choose to target users in certain drier regions.

Water districts and landowners across California had just begun to receive the notices Tuesday and expressed a mix of reactions, from mild concern to alarm.

The city of San Francisco, which has water rights in the Sierra and stores its draws in reservoirs, has enough supply in storage to weather a few more dry years. Many small farmers in the San Joaquin Valley, however, have fewer reserves to fall back on.

“I think everyone understands that curtailments are always a possibility in California, but it’s another blow to our ability to grow food and fiber,” said Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition.

In 2014 and 2015, amid one of the worst droughts in modern times, the State Water Board began an unprecedented series of restrictions on water rights holders. Even one of San Francisco’s claims, on a stream that serves Camp Mather near Yosemite National Park, was curtailed.

Esquivel said the state is much better prepared for drought now than it was last decade, and he hopes that means fewer water users will be forced to make cuts. Both cities and farms have adopted more efficient technology and water practices, and state policies have been implemented to better track and monitor water use.

“We have the benefit of being in a bit of a different place,” he said

California’s two big water projects also announced Tuesday that they would likely be delivering less water to their urban and rural customers over the coming year.

The projects, one run by the federal government and the other by the state, capture snowmelt in big mountain reservoirs and send it through canals and aqueducts to drier parts of California. But storage in the systems is down this year. Shasta Lake, the largest reservoir, has just two-thirds of the water it historically holds in March, for example, while the second-largest reservoir, Lake Oroville, has only a little more than half of what it historically holds.

The federally managed Central Valley Project said for many of its customers, which are mostly agricultural, it would be delaying its already reduced delivery of 5% of what users requested. Project managers did not say when the water will be released.

The State Water Project, whose users skew toward urban areas and include suppliers in the East Bay and South Bay, downgraded its projected allocation from 10% of what users requested to 5%.

Karla Nemeth, director of the California Department of Water Resources, told The Chronicle that the state had no choice, given the dry conditions in the Feather River watershed. This is where Lake Oroville is located.

“It would have to be biblical to adjust a water allocation at this point,” Nemeth said, referring to the end of the wet winter season. “Everyone is just hoping for a better year next year.”

Nemeth said restrictions during the last drought have prompted customers of the water projects to learn to do more with less.

“We’re starting off (now) with a more efficient set of urban water users than we were in 2014 and 2015,” she added. “That said, we’re going to lean on the Save Our Water campaign … and start preparing and planning.”

In addition to low reservoir levels, the spring snow melt-off, which historically recharges California’s reservoirs, is expected to be low. Snowpack in the Sierra and southern Cascades stands at 63% of what it typically is this time of year.

The U.S. Drought Monitor, meanwhile, estimates that 90% of California is in at least a minor state of drought.

Kurtis Alexander is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.