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Blog Post · July 19, 2022

Our Experts Weigh In on the Drought

photo - Low Water Level at New Melones Lake, in California

The water news in California has been grim. As PPIC Water Policy Center senior fellow Jeff Mount says, “we’re in year three of a miserable drought”—with “miserable” being the operative word. We sat down with Mount, senior fellow Alvar Escriva-Bou, and center director Ellen Hanak to discuss recent water news.

We’re in year three of a serious drought. How different is it from last year?

Jeff Mount: One difference is that the State Water Board has been very proactive. They announced curtailments earlier and they are moving much more quickly than last year. They have the right authorities to deal with the drought.

Alvar Escriva-Bou: If you look at the state’s reservoirs, some are higher now than they were at this time last year. That may give people the false impression that we’re in better shape than last year. We’re not.

JM: Yes. It may look like a “normal” dry year to some, but it’s the third successive dry, hot year in a row, which has a huge cumulative effect. It hits plants, animals, groundwater, cropping—there’s nothing left in the tank. It’s wrong to look at each individual year—you’ve got to look at the cumulative effect.

Ellen Hanak: This year also really highlights how conditions can vary depending on where your water is stored. You can draw a line down the middle of the Sacramento Valley—on the east side, they’re ok. On the west side, they’re not planting rice. Decent rains fell into some reservoirs, but Shasta barely got anything. Shasta is so critical for managing cold water for salmon that it’s resulted in historic cutbacks to senior water right holders.

JM: Our recent report reminded everybody that the responsibility for maintaining water quality in the Delta doesn’t fall equally on everybody. Last year, 100% of the runoff in this huge watershed got used upstream or within the Delta. So all the water needed to keep the Delta fresh enough for people and ecosystems had to come from State Water Project (SWP) and Central Valley Project (CVP) reservoirs. They drained Shasta last year to do that, and then it didn’t rain.

What’s happening with urban water?

EH: Last year we said the urban sector would be in a different position if the drought continued. Some places that were in a really tight spot last year—like Marin—got a bit of a reprieve because of winter storms. Meanwhile, those areas that depend on the SWP are having to really cut back. Since June 1, parts of Southern California can only water outdoors once a week—and if there’s not sufficient progress, this might turn into an outdoor watering ban by summer’s end.

JM: One added concern for Southern California is looming shortages on the Colorado River—historically a key source of reliability when SWP deliveries from Northern California are tight.

Do we need a state conservation mandate?

AEB: Mandates are a controversial topic. Calling on residents to conserve more during a drought is a tool in every local agency’s plan. But the savings needed will vary, because local agencies often face different supply conditions. In 2015, the Brown administration ordered a statewide mandate for the first time ever, calling for 25% savings on average. In a survey we did of urban water managers, many felt that the level of conservation asked of them was too high, relative to their local conditions. But they also recognized that the mandate helped bring water use way down—and much of those savings have persisted.

EH: So far, the Newsom administration has been calling for voluntary 15% savings statewide, while emphasizing the local agency role in drought management. That’s been a tough sell in some circles, because there are folks who feel it’s important to see significant savings everywhere during a drought, no matter what the local circumstances. When monthly savings numbers didn’t look good this spring, this increased calls for a mandate. Early reports suggest that the new outdoor watering rules in So Cal are having an impact; that could relieve pressure to go that route.

Final thoughts?

JM: All droughts have something in common—there’s less water available. But each drought is also unique. This one is different in two ways: First, it’s both hot and dry; 2021 was off the charts in terms of dryness. Second, we make progress in every drought—and this drought is no exception.

EH: The last drought broke our groundwater—and it led to the adoption of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Arguably, this drought has broken the Delta watershed. Will this be the catalyst for revisiting how we manage that crucial system?


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