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Blog Post · December 8, 2021

What’s Really Important? Putting Recent Water News into Perspective

photo - Snow Survey 2021, pixel ca dwr

Last week, three major news stories about California’s water supply dominated the news. We asked Water Policy Center director Ellen Hanak and senior fellow Jeff Mount to share their perspectives on what’s really important about these stories.

PPIC: We’ve got three things on the docket: first, the statewide mandatory conservation order that came out last Friday; second, the 0% allocation from the State Water Project (SWP); and third, the story about the Sierra’s shrinking snowpack. Go!

photo - Jeffrey Mount

Jeff Mount: Let’s start with the snowpack story. It got a lot of buzz, because it paints a very dire picture. Although the results are aligned with what we are already seeing, we have the capability to adapt.

Historically, snowpack was one of the most reliable forms of storage we had—on average, it comprised roughly 30% of our annual water supply. It conveniently released water in the spring when water demand starts to pick up. We have built a whole water supply “grid” around this source of both storage and supply.

But on-going changes in climate—especially warming temperatures—are shifting snow to rain, and causing more runoff to occur in the winter rather than the spring.

It will be hard to adjust to losing a portion of our springtime storage and gaining more winter runoff.  Right now we lower the level of our reservoirs in the fall to help reduce flood risk.  We then let them fill in the spring when the snowmelt comes. To adapt to less snow we have got to change the way we store water.  This means moving more water underground whenever possible. Also, improvements in forecast modeling are helping us change how we operate our reservoirs to balance flood and water supply needs.   Adapting to a future with less or no snow is possible, but will be expensive and challenging. What is clear is that we are not going to dry up and blow away.

photo - Ellen Hanak

Ellen Hanak: Groundwater recharge is already something people are pretty energized about, and we’re not starting from scratch. California has great aquifers to use as part of our storage system, and we already have experience around how to actively recharge groundwater basins. There’s a lot of momentum locally to develop recharge projects, and the state is very interested in this too. But there’s still work to be done. We need a strategy to use uncaptured flood flows to bring groundwater basins into balance. And as the climate warms and the snowpack shrinks, some of the water we’ve captured in reservoirs needs to get into the ground as well to better manage for both droughts and floods.

Let’s talk about last week’s announcement of a 0% allocation from the State Water Project.

EH: In 2014, the State Water Project had a 0% allocation—so it’s not unheard-of. What’s different is that this is the earliest it’s been announced. That reflects the fact that last year was so hard, and that reservoir management was playing catch-up through most of the late spring and summer. As the Department of Water Resources director Karla Nemeth said in our event last month, we got smoked on this. The runoff availability that they were expecting last spring didn’t happen, so they’re being more prudent now. It’s going to be tough for some water users. For planning, it’s better to start with a zero allocation, and then, if we’re lucky this winter, kick it up.

Also, Karla used a qualifier like “essentially a zero allocation” in the announcement because they do anticipate delivering about 340,000 acre-feet for public health and safety reasons to communities that are very heavily dependent on the State Water Project—and they’re in places that might surprise you. Communities in the Bay Area—such as Dublin, San Ramon, and Livermore in Alameda County—and others in Southern California are highly reliant on State Water Project supplies. I’m anticipating those places will still get deliveries, because otherwise you’re not meeting needs for indoor water use in homes and businesses or for firefighting. You’ve got to have water for that.

JM: So the short answer is, it’s not going to be zero. There is going to be some water. And most of these agencies anticipated that there will be low supplies from the State Water Project.

Let’s talk about the conservation mandate that came out Friday afternoon.

EH: It’s a list we’ve seen in the past—no obvious wasting of water on outdoor uses, no hoses without nozzles, no watering the sidewalk—things that send a statewide message to be cautious with water use. obvious things. In the last drought, we heard that messaging from the state can really help. And during the last drought, drought was a top issue in PPIC public opinion surveys. It’s not in the top five issues right now, likely because there’s so much else going on. So to the extent that the state can get the word out, that’s helpful.


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