Southern California water supply improves dramatically; Metropolitan directors vote to rescind regional drought emergency

2023 Water Supply Demand Balance - One Water and Stewardship Committee

What a difference 11 atmospheric rivers make.  Metropolitan, as recently as January facing a 574,000-acre deficit, is now anticipating putting 119,000 acre-feet or more into storage this year, the first time since 2019.  Metropolitan staff delivered the good news at the One Water Committee meeting on March 14.

The big change is attributed to the State Water Project allocation increase to 35% and a decrease in water demand of about 100,000 acre-feet due to improved local water conditions.  In addition, any increases in allocation will allow for even more water to go into storage.  Staff estimates that the allocation will increase to about 50%.  However, if precipitation continues, the allocation could rise to 80%, meaning 800,000 ace-feet moving into State Water Project and regional storage programs.

Also, storage has increased at San Luis Reservoir, a joint state-federal storage facility.  The State Water Project portion is almost full, so Metropolitan is coordinating with DWR to receive Article 21 water.  Article 21 waters are surplus supplies made available to State Water Project contractors when water is available but no available storage space.  (What is Article 21 water?  Click here to find out more.)

The improved hydrology also means that Metropolitan is no longer in a shortage condition for State Water Project-dependent areas, so the Emergency Water Conservation Program is no longer needed. 

Noosha Razavian, Associate Resource Specialist, said staff would initially prioritize moving water into storage accessible to the State Water Project dependent areas.  If the State Water Project allocation increases, they anticipate putting water into regional storage, such as Diamond Valley Lake and local conjunctive use programs.  Any additional water would next go to lower-priority storage, such as out-of-the-area banking programs.

Staff pointed out there are ongoing challenges on the Colorado River, so there is a need for continued water efficiency and conservation.  Therefore, the staff recommendation was for the board to terminate the Emergency Water Conservation Program for the State Water Project-dependent areas and to reaffirm the Regional Drought Emergency.

However, the staff recommendation received little support from the committee members.  Director Barry Pressman (Beverly Hills) had concerns about maintaining the regional drought emergency.  “We have to maintain our credibility as an agency and a messenger to our public, I don’t think we want to appear tone deaf, but this sounds tone deaf to me,” he said.  “I can’t support anything that uses the words ‘drought emergency’ going forward.”

Chair Adán Ortega (San Fernando) shares Director Pressman’s concern but from another angle.  The new reality is with climate whiplash, we need new terminology.  However, he noted, “We’ll lose credibility if we call off the drought and then five months later have to call it back on because of the Colorado River and the areas that are dependent on that source.”

Director Cynthia Kurtz (Pasadena) recalled how in Oregon, the locals had a joke that if it didn’t rain for three days, someone called it a drought; if Met reaffirms the drought emergency at this time, it runs the risk of becoming a joke.  “We need to message that we still face challenges ahead, but we don’t need to talk about a drought in the rain,” she said.

Chair Tracy Quinn noted that the emergency continues on the Colorado River, so it’s important to remind customers that we are still in an emergency despite all the rain and snow.  Therefore, there is still a need to use water efficiently. 

The Committee then voted to terminate the Emergency Water Conservation Program for the State Water Project dependent areas and not to reaffirm the Regional Drought Emergency.