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As California's drought deepens, water use drops only 1.8%

A heron wades in the shallow waters of the Lexington Reservoir in Los Gatos on July 7, 2021. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Californians reduced their water use at home by a meager 1.8% statewide in July compared to last year, even after Gov. Gavin Newsom urged residents to conserve 15% and drought continues to spread across the state.

Officials on Tuesday warned water providers south of the Delta who rely on state water allocations — already slashed to 5% this year — to brace for the possibility of zero supply next year.

The Department of Water Resources also cautioned that next year's cuts in supply could expand to growers and others known as settlement contractors, whose claims to the water predate California's massive systems of reservoirs, aqueducts and canals.

"Californians always have hope, and that's healthy. But we need to be prudent," Karla Nemeth, director of the state Department of Water Resources, said in an interview. "We're doing more conservative planning than we've ever done."

Drought conditions deemed extreme or worse now cover nearly 90% of the state. Hundreds of domestic wells are running dry, and levels in major reservoirs have dropped drastically below historic averages — which bodes ill for supplies next year.

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"The challenge is there is no water," Nemeth said.

"We're planning for the worst, but we are hoping for something better," Nemeth added at Tuesday's meeting of the State Water Resources Control Board.

Who's conserving and who's not?

In early July, Newsom urged Californians to voluntarily cut domestic water use by 15%, but in the absence of a statewide mandate, a patchwork of restrictions has emerged. The result: Californians used about 191.5 billion gallons of water in their homes, businesses and other industrial or institutional spaces in July, only 1.8% less than a year earlier.

"I'm not here to say 1.8 is a good number," said Joaquin Esquivel, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, at a Monday press briefing. "We're going to have to continue to dig in deeper and look forward to seeing what the numbers show then in August."

When asked when to expect statewide conservation orders, Esquivel said that for now, the board is reflecting on the data. "We need to continue to see that response and decision-making, and the state's here to make sure that if we need to go mandatory, that's where we're going."

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The biggest drops in household water use were along the hard-hit North Coast, with a nearly 17% reduction in July 2021 compared with July 2020. The Sonoma County city of Healdsburg led the state by cutting its water use by more than half, and Cloverdale, which reduced its use by 37%. Both cities enacted mandatory water use restrictions.

Water use in the South Coast region, which includes Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego and Ventura counties, was roughly even with last summer, down 0.1%. However, about 40% of water suppliers in the area actually used more water.

"There's always more we can do. But…Southern California has done a lot" to conserve in recent years, said Demetri Polyzos, the Metropolitan Water District's team manager of resource planning.

The biggest increases in water use came in El Segundo, up 31%; the Mission Viejo-Laguna Niguel area, up 15%; and the cities of Downey and Poway and Ventura County's Casitas district, up 14%. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the city of San Diego used about 1% more.

San Francisco Bay Area residents cut their water use by 8.4%. Northern and southern San Joaquin Valley residents reduced use by 0.8% and 1.6%, respectively.

The statewide calculation doesn't include two suppliers — the city of Exeter in Tulare County and the Desert Water Agency in the Coachella Valley — that had unexpectedly high water use. "Their percent increase was higher than reasonable and my attempts to confirm both 2020 and 2021 numbers received no reply," said water board data specialist Marielle Pinheiro.

A squeeze south of the Delta

Officials warned that major cuts could come for irrigation districts, cities and other water users south of the Delta relying on supplies from the State Water Project, which provides water to 27 million Californians and 750,000 acres of farmland.

At this point, Nemeth said there's "a slim likelihood" of supplies for these water systems, which includes the giant Metropolitan Water District, which provides imported water to 19 million people in Southern California. Worst-case scenario, she said, "we've asked them to plan for no allocation from the State Water Project."

Those suppliers, including in the Bay Area, Southern California, the Central Coast and the San Joaquin Valley, have seen steep cuts before, during the last drought in 2014. But this time is worse: Even a wet year is unlikely to bring relief.

"We're starting with record low (reservoir) storage," Nemeth said. "We would have to have north of 140% of (average) precipitation to generate average runoff into the reservoirs that would begin filling that hole."

Jennifer Pierre, general manager of the State Water Contractors, an association of public water agencies, said "a 0% allocation next year would be extremely challenging."

'Everything's on the table. We could cut …even deeper than their contracts allow for. I don't think we get out of next year without a lawsuit.'

-Karla Nemeth, state Department of Water Resources

Polyzos of the Metropolitan Water District said "a combination of the things that we're doing," such as storing water, "in conjunction with the public conserving will definitely get us through low State Water Project allocation."

Even landowners, irrigation districts and others with rights to water that predate state and federal water projects could see their water supplies squeezed next year, Nemeth said. These water users agreed in contracts decades ago to limit their water rights to allow construction of the massive projects, which transferred water south. Their allocations aren't cut to the same extent as more junior contractors, such as the Metropolitan Water District.

"With hydrology this bad, everything's on the table that we could cut them even deeper — even deeper than their contracts allow for," Nemeth said. "I don't think we get out of next year without a lawsuit."

Already this summer, Central Valley irrigation districts and the city of San Francisco have sued the state over moves to stop them from diverting water from rivers and streams.

State and federal project operators have come under fire from environmental advocates for supplying hundreds of thousands of acre feet to these senior contractors, while failing to meet water quality standards and cutting allocations to more-junior agricultural contractors and cities.

Feather River Contractors, for instance, were allocated the lowest levels allowed in their contracts, but still were expected to receive nearly 600,000 acre feet of water, according to the Department of Water Resources — enough water to supply 1.8 million Southern California households for a year. That's about three times more water than long-term State Water Project contractors, including the giant Metropolitan Water District, were provided.

California's drought conditions and warming temperatures are threatening salmon and other rare fish.

For endangered Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon, "we've modeled the temperature dependent mortality at about 80% this year, meaning only 20% even survive to make it out of the gravel," Barry Thom, West Coast regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries, told the water board.

Doug Obegi, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, urged the board on Tuesday to require state and federal water project operators to cut supplies to settlement contractors to protect fish.

If supplies aren't reduced, "you're going to have even worse temperature mortality of salmon next year," Obegi told CalMatters. "You start with less water, and you have less at the end of the year, you're going to have a lot more dead fish. It's grim."

Nemeth said she issued the early warning to prepare growers dependent on senior contracts well in advance of making planting decisions.

Last year, early planting by growers "really limited the amount of decisions we thought we could make without causing real economic damage," Nemeth said. This year, "We want to alert them sooner that it could be worse than they've experienced before."

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As California's drought deepens, water use drops only 1.8%

by / CalMatters

Uploaded: Thu, Sep 23, 2021, 9:37 am

Californians reduced their water use at home by a meager 1.8% statewide in July compared to last year, even after Gov. Gavin Newsom urged residents to conserve 15% and drought continues to spread across the state.

Officials on Tuesday warned water providers south of the Delta who rely on state water allocations — already slashed to 5% this year — to brace for the possibility of zero supply next year.

The Department of Water Resources also cautioned that next year's cuts in supply could expand to growers and others known as settlement contractors, whose claims to the water predate California's massive systems of reservoirs, aqueducts and canals.

"Californians always have hope, and that's healthy. But we need to be prudent," Karla Nemeth, director of the state Department of Water Resources, said in an interview. "We're doing more conservative planning than we've ever done."

Drought conditions deemed extreme or worse now cover nearly 90% of the state. Hundreds of domestic wells are running dry, and levels in major reservoirs have dropped drastically below historic averages — which bodes ill for supplies next year.

"The challenge is there is no water," Nemeth said.

"We're planning for the worst, but we are hoping for something better," Nemeth added at Tuesday's meeting of the State Water Resources Control Board.

In early July, Newsom urged Californians to voluntarily cut domestic water use by 15%, but in the absence of a statewide mandate, a patchwork of restrictions has emerged. The result: Californians used about 191.5 billion gallons of water in their homes, businesses and other industrial or institutional spaces in July, only 1.8% less than a year earlier.

"I'm not here to say 1.8 is a good number," said Joaquin Esquivel, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, at a Monday press briefing. "We're going to have to continue to dig in deeper and look forward to seeing what the numbers show then in August."

When asked when to expect statewide conservation orders, Esquivel said that for now, the board is reflecting on the data. "We need to continue to see that response and decision-making, and the state's here to make sure that if we need to go mandatory, that's where we're going."

The biggest drops in household water use were along the hard-hit North Coast, with a nearly 17% reduction in July 2021 compared with July 2020. The Sonoma County city of Healdsburg led the state by cutting its water use by more than half, and Cloverdale, which reduced its use by 37%. Both cities enacted mandatory water use restrictions.

Water use in the South Coast region, which includes Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego and Ventura counties, was roughly even with last summer, down 0.1%. However, about 40% of water suppliers in the area actually used more water.

"There's always more we can do. But…Southern California has done a lot" to conserve in recent years, said Demetri Polyzos, the Metropolitan Water District's team manager of resource planning.

The biggest increases in water use came in El Segundo, up 31%; the Mission Viejo-Laguna Niguel area, up 15%; and the cities of Downey and Poway and Ventura County's Casitas district, up 14%. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the city of San Diego used about 1% more.

San Francisco Bay Area residents cut their water use by 8.4%. Northern and southern San Joaquin Valley residents reduced use by 0.8% and 1.6%, respectively.

The statewide calculation doesn't include two suppliers — the city of Exeter in Tulare County and the Desert Water Agency in the Coachella Valley — that had unexpectedly high water use. "Their percent increase was higher than reasonable and my attempts to confirm both 2020 and 2021 numbers received no reply," said water board data specialist Marielle Pinheiro.

Officials warned that major cuts could come for irrigation districts, cities and other water users south of the Delta relying on supplies from the State Water Project, which provides water to 27 million Californians and 750,000 acres of farmland.

At this point, Nemeth said there's "a slim likelihood" of supplies for these water systems, which includes the giant Metropolitan Water District, which provides imported water to 19 million people in Southern California. Worst-case scenario, she said, "we've asked them to plan for no allocation from the State Water Project."

Those suppliers, including in the Bay Area, Southern California, the Central Coast and the San Joaquin Valley, have seen steep cuts before, during the last drought in 2014. But this time is worse: Even a wet year is unlikely to bring relief.

"We're starting with record low (reservoir) storage," Nemeth said. "We would have to have north of 140% of (average) precipitation to generate average runoff into the reservoirs that would begin filling that hole."

Jennifer Pierre, general manager of the State Water Contractors, an association of public water agencies, said "a 0% allocation next year would be extremely challenging."

Polyzos of the Metropolitan Water District said "a combination of the things that we're doing," such as storing water, "in conjunction with the public conserving will definitely get us through low State Water Project allocation."

Even landowners, irrigation districts and others with rights to water that predate state and federal water projects could see their water supplies squeezed next year, Nemeth said. These water users agreed in contracts decades ago to limit their water rights to allow construction of the massive projects, which transferred water south. Their allocations aren't cut to the same extent as more junior contractors, such as the Metropolitan Water District.

"With hydrology this bad, everything's on the table that we could cut them even deeper — even deeper than their contracts allow for," Nemeth said. "I don't think we get out of next year without a lawsuit."

Already this summer, Central Valley irrigation districts and the city of San Francisco have sued the state over moves to stop them from diverting water from rivers and streams.

State and federal project operators have come under fire from environmental advocates for supplying hundreds of thousands of acre feet to these senior contractors, while failing to meet water quality standards and cutting allocations to more-junior agricultural contractors and cities.

Feather River Contractors, for instance, were allocated the lowest levels allowed in their contracts, but still were expected to receive nearly 600,000 acre feet of water, according to the Department of Water Resources — enough water to supply 1.8 million Southern California households for a year. That's about three times more water than long-term State Water Project contractors, including the giant Metropolitan Water District, were provided.

California's drought conditions and warming temperatures are threatening salmon and other rare fish.

For endangered Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon, "we've modeled the temperature dependent mortality at about 80% this year, meaning only 20% even survive to make it out of the gravel," Barry Thom, West Coast regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries, told the water board.

Doug Obegi, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, urged the board on Tuesday to require state and federal water project operators to cut supplies to settlement contractors to protect fish.

If supplies aren't reduced, "you're going to have even worse temperature mortality of salmon next year," Obegi told CalMatters. "You start with less water, and you have less at the end of the year, you're going to have a lot more dead fish. It's grim."

Nemeth said she issued the early warning to prepare growers dependent on senior contracts well in advance of making planting decisions.

Last year, early planting by growers "really limited the amount of decisions we thought we could make without causing real economic damage," Nemeth said. This year, "We want to alert them sooner that it could be worse than they've experienced before."

Email Rachel Becker at [email protected]

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California's policies and politics.

Comments

tmp
Registered user
Downtown North
on Sep 23, 2021 at 10:42 am
tmp, Downtown North
Registered user
on Sep 23, 2021 at 10:42 am

Drought implies that the amount of water we are getting from rain and snow is abnormally low. However, there is a lot of evidence that we should not be referring to recent amounts of water the state is receiving as a "drought". It is actually what we will need to expect in the long term with global warming and our destruction of the earth's climate systems. In fact we may continue to get less water each year.

Further we have been asked to conserve for many years now so it is not reasonable to expect to see the same percentages of water savings that we saw in the past. When people conserve one year they don't start using more over time. Once your lawn is gone, it is gone. So it becomes harder for individuals to conserve in subsequent years since so much has already been done. Larger users such as agriculture still have a ways to go but they have limitations also as temperatures increase.

The discussion that needs to happen, and is not happening for multiple reasons, is that we need to limit human population and growth in the state. This means stopping adding more jobs and homes and starting a discussion about how to limit human growth and thereby limit human impacts on the environment.

The exponential growth in the numbers of humans in the last 100 years (from less than 2 billion to almost 8 billion) is directly responsible for global warming, the extinction crisis and most of our serious environmental issues. It is time to address the root cause of our problems to get back to a level of humanity that the earth can support while at the same time trying to deal with current situations. Let's stop making the problem worse with more growth!


resident
Registered user
Stanford
on Sep 23, 2021 at 10:54 am
resident, Stanford
Registered user
on Sep 23, 2021 at 10:54 am

Agriculture accounts for approximately 80 percent of all the water used in California. Water efficiency is important, but we also need to develop other sources of water, such as desalination plants. Israel built so many water desalination plants that farmers can now order up how much water they want. They may have to pay more for water, but I have not heard many complaints.
Can you write about the progress on water desalination in CA?
Can you also write an article about residential greywater use? I would like to retrofit my house so that I can use greywater to water my plants. But I have not found a company that can do that.


Banes
Registered user
Greater Miranda
on Sep 23, 2021 at 10:59 am
Banes , Greater Miranda
Registered user
on Sep 23, 2021 at 10:59 am

Cuts next year should parallel overuse this year. This is a team game not a contest.


Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 23, 2021 at 11:02 am
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Sep 23, 2021 at 11:02 am

For those of us who have lived here sometime, we are already in the habit of saving water, with low flow everything and being really careful.

Many people used to shower at gyms, use restrooms at work, school or restaurants, as a means of using water less at home. With more of us spending more time at home it is obvious that home water consumption has gone up during the pandemic, saying nothing about all the extra handwashing and cleaning.

The real question should be about the water supply. How is the State going to guarantee us more water if we continue to build housing and not stop agriculture? Why are we not expanding capacity at reservoirs or building more? Why are we not investing in desalination plants on a major scale?


William Hitchens
Registered user
Mountain View
on Sep 23, 2021 at 11:30 am
William Hitchens, Mountain View
Registered user
on Sep 23, 2021 at 11:30 am

"Agriculture accounts for approximately 80 percent of all the water used in California". True.

I'll bet that if you add commercial, home, park, school, etc. plant irrigation, the number comes closer to 90%. When we cut back our consumption by about 40% voluntarily a few months ago, we determined that over 80% of our home's consumption was for yard irrigation. All of the other uses, even toilets and laundry, were pittances in comparison.


Citizen
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 24, 2021 at 6:12 am
Citizen, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Sep 24, 2021 at 6:12 am

CA grows a large percentage of the nation’s food. There is a crisis in farming with the drought a long time coming because of consolidation.The reckoning from top down predatory economics that best serve the few is upon us in more ways than this.

I agree, it’s time to put a halt to the unfettered growth. About one in every twelve Americans lives here already.Residents are being forced to take on quality-of-life-crushing growth in already dense areas with no regard to impact on water transportation fire public health emergency and other systems and displacement.

The pandemic should have been a wake up call.

I voted against Newsom’s recall because Republicans have shown themselves to be such pathologically lying incompetent power mongers attacking our nation from the inside, but Newsom has unwisely taken his win as a mandate to keep up the destructive overgrowth while ignoring the drought. (In the human body, what do we call cells that grow unfettered without regard to negative impact on surrounding tissue and the system?)

Unwise overgrowth and the lies that enable it are becoming for CA Democrats what tax cuts for the richest have been for Republicans, a kind of religion with no adjustment from real world negatives. It’s resulting in the opposite of promises? We must need to do more of it! (Not)

The citizen initiative may be the only thing that saves us.


Merilee Johnson
Registered user
Stanford
on Sep 24, 2021 at 8:17 am
Merilee Johnson, Stanford
Registered user
on Sep 24, 2021 at 8:17 am

Design engineering is currently underway to create mini-waste water treatment units for individual homes and offices.

Though the concept is about 3-5 years away from practical implementation, these devices will recycle used water from washing machines, dishwashers, and sinks making the H20 re-usable for home irrigation, bathing, and drinking.

It is no different than the water recycling units used in outer space except that they will be larger and able to process more waste water capacity.

Processing raw sewage water at home is further away but also feasible.

Fresh natural water will then become more of a luxury item and sold only to those who can afford its higher prices.

At this point we will no longer be reliant on rainfall, reservoir capacities, or the Hetch Hetchy aqueduct.

It will take Millennial engineering and innovation to offset the environmental damages inflicted by the pervasive wastefulness of countless Babyboomers who are at heart very self-serving and ignorant until it is too late.

Having more residents living in Palo Alto will no longer be a problem once this water challenge is overcome.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 24, 2021 at 8:37 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Sep 24, 2021 at 8:37 am

With the new bills ending single-family zoning and the new ABAG requirements for more jobs aka offices, it's great that none of them will use a drop of water.


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