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California water is ‘zero day’ Although not yet, unprecedented water restrictions are a stark warning
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California water is ‘zero day’ Although not yet, unprecedented water restrictions are a stark warning

Map of drought conditions for the contiguous United States as of Dec. 7, 2021


California made headlines when officials in California announced their intention to reopen the state on December 1, 2021. announced how much waterSuppliers would receive from the State Water Project. “California water districts to get 0% of requested supplies in an unprecedented decision,” one headline proclaimed. “No state water for California farms,” read another.

The headlines suggested a comparison with the “Zero Day” announcement in Cape Town, South Africa, during a drought in 2018. This was the date at which water would cease to be available at household taps, unless there were significant conservation measures. Cape Town avoided a water shutoff, barely.

While California’s announcement represents uncharted territory and is meant to promote water conservation in what is already a dry water year, there is more to the story.

Map of drought conditions for the contiguous United States as of Dec. 7, 2021
California’s drought conditions were severe in California in December 2021.
U.S. Drought Monitor/David Simeral, Western Regional Climate Center

California’s drought solution

California is a semi-arid state, so a dry year isn’t a surprise. But a recent state report observed that California is now in a dry pattern “interspersed with an occasional wet year.” The state suffered a three-year drought from 2007 to 2009, a five-year drought from 2012 to 2016, and now two dry years in a row; 2020 was the fifth-driest year on record, and 2021 was the second-driest.

Coming into the 2022 water year – which began Oct. 1 – the ground is dry, reservoirs are low and the prediction is for another dry year.

Over a century ago, well before climate change became evident, officials began planning ways to keep California’s growing cities and farms supplied with water. They developed a complex system of reservoirs and canals that funnel water from where it’s plentiful to where it’s needed.

The State Water Project is a part of this system.

First envisioned1919 saw the State Water Project deliver water from the more populated and dryer areas of Northern California to the more wetter areas. This was mostly in Southern California. The State Water Project provides water27 million people, 750,000 acres of farmland. About 70% is for residential, municipal, and industrial use. 30% is for irrigation. There are 29 local water agencies – the state water contractors – that helped fund the State Water Project and in return receive water under a contract dating to the 1960s.

Map of the State Water Project's reservoirs and primary canals
The reservoirs (circles reflect comparative size) and primary canals and aqueducts (bold lines) connected with California’s State Water Project.
California Department of Water Resources

Although the State Water Project is vital to these local water agencies it is not their only source. California does not have all its water supplied by the State Water Project. Many water agencies have a portfolio of water supply options, which may include groundwater pumping.

What does 0% actually mean?

The original goal of the State Water Project was to deliver 4.2 Million Acre-Feet of water per year. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallonsThis is enough water to cover a football-field in water one foot deep. The average California household uses approximately one-half to one-acre-foot of water each year for indoor and outdoor purposes. Contractors who distribute water from the State Water Project typically receive only a portion of their allocations. The long-term average is however 60%, with recent years much lower.

The state Department of Water Resources allocates water resources to state water contractors based on the water conditions for each year. This allocation is made by December 1. The state can adjust its allocation based upon additional rain or snow, as well as the amount of water stored in reservoirs. The allocation for 2010 was, for example. started at 5%In June, the allocation was raised to 50%. The 2014 allocation was 5% at first, then dropped to 0%, and finally 5% at the end.

This is the lowest record-breaking initial allocation. According to the state Department of Water Resources, “unprecedented drought conditions” and “reservoirs at or near historic lows” led to this year’s headline-producing 0% allocation.

That’s 0% of each state water contractor’s allocation; however, the department committed to meet “unmet minimum health and safety needs.” In other words, if the contractors cannot find water from other sources, they could request up to 55 gallons per capita per day of water to “meet domestic supply, fire protection and sanitation needs.” That’s about two-thirdsHere’s what the average American uses.

The department is also prioritizingWater to control salinity in the Sacramento Bay Delta region, water for endangered animals, water to store in storage, and water for additional supply allocations if weather conditions improve.

Under the current plan, there will be no water from the State Water Project for roughly 10% of California’s irrigated land. As a result, both municipal water providers and agricultural water providers will be trying to conserve water. They may look elsewhere for water supplies or stop delivering water. None of these solutions are simple.

Groundwater pumping is a problem

Many water suppliers relied upon groundwater to weather droughts in the past, which resulted in higher costs for wells. declines in groundwater levels, land subsidenceAnd degraded water quality. California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act was enacted in 2014 to help address overpumping of groundwater, but it hasn’t turned these conditions around.

Chart showing water level dropping and subsidence increasing.
Groundwater pumping during droughts in California’s Central Valley lowered underground water levels and contributed to land subsidence. The chart shows the levels at one monitoring station.

Those who can dig deeper wells have done it, while those without water have not. their wells have gone dry. During the 2012-2016 drought the Public Policy Institute of California found that a majority of affected households that lost water access from their wells were in “small rural communities reliant on shallow wells – many of them communities of color.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom urged residents to conserve 15% of their water in summer 2021. Statewide reductions were only 1.8%In July but jumped to 13.2% in October. This year’s snowpack, which acts as a natural reservoir, is far below normal.

Irrigators who rely on the federal Central Valley ProjectSimilar drought conditions are currently affecting other areas. Due to the fact that this basin is also located in Colorado River, imports from this system are also limited. facing its first-ever shortage declaration due to drought.

What’s next?

As someone who has worked on water issues in California and the West U.S., I am familiar with both floods as well the challenges they pose. But, the widespread nature of this year’s drought – in California and beyond – makes the challenge even harder.

This “zero allocation” for California’s State Water Contractors is an unprecedented early warning, and likely a sign of what’s ahead.

An aerial photo of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta
The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta provides fresh water to two-thirds of the state’s population.
California Department of Water Resources

A recent study has shown that snowpack levels in Western states such as California are declining. may decline by up to 45% by 2050With low- and non-snow years becoming more common, Thirty-seven cities in CaliforniaWater supply concerns have already prompted moratoriums on development.

If voluntary conservation does not work, enacting mandatory conservation measures like San Jose’s tough new drought rulesThis may be necessary. The state is now weighing emergency regulationsEveryone is aiming for more precipitation and water usage.

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