Storms in December allow for an increase in state water supplies


Nearly two months after extreme drought conditions forced the state to slash water allocations along the massive state water project, regulators have announced a modest increase in supplies due to a recent string of drenched storms.

December’s surprise but welcome spate of record-breaking rain and snow — including more than 17 feet of powder at Donner Pass — provided enough moisture to increase planned allocations from 0% to 15%, the Department of Water Resources said Thursday.

“December Storms activated [the Department of Water Resources] to transport and store water in the San Luis Reservoir, allowing for a modest increase in water shipments this year,” the agency’s director, Karla Nemeth, said in a statement.

In early December, officials said the drought had shrunk the region’s reservoirs to such historic lows that they could only allocate enough water to meet the critical health and safety needs of the 29 water agencies managed by the State Water Project, a complex system are supplied by reservoirs, canals and dams. Together, these agencies provide water to about 27 million residents.

Though 15% is a long way from a deluge, the news marks a welcome change for a state that has endured two years of fallow fields, barely flowing streams and tightened water restrictions. The 2021 water year, which ended September 30, was the driest in California in a century.

Crucially, increasing the allocation doesn’t mean the drought is over, Nemeth said. The state needs more storms to continue to offset the deficits of so many critically dry years.

“Dry conditions returned back in January,” she said. “Californiaans must continue to conserve as the state plans a third dry year.”

In fact, the year has already got off to a dry start, and the US Drought Monitor map still shows most of California in moderate to severe drought conditions.

Scott Rowe, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Sacramento, said many parts of the state have received only 20% or less of normal precipitation compared to typical January levels.

“It was by far a drier month compared to December and even compared to October when we had this big atmospheric flux,” he said.

In the Central Sierra, statewide snowpack on Friday was still a healthy 109% above normal for the date, but the number had fallen from 139% from just two weeks earlier as some December snow is already beginning to melt.

Because of December’s rain and snow, the Department of Water Resources and the US Bureau of Reclamation were also able to withdraw their request for a temporary petition that would have allowed them to release less water into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta through April.

The delta is the hydrological center of the state, and the petition was intended to conserve the limited stored water in the Shasta, Oroville, and Folsom reservoirs.

While Shasta remains in critical condition, Oroville and Folsom reservoirs are in better shape, officials said.

Oroville — the state’s largest reservoir — was at 45% utilization as of Friday, up from 30% in early December, according to state data. Earlier this month, officials were able to restart Oroville’s hydroelectric power station after the drought forced its closure for the first time last August.

The Department of Water Resources will continue to prioritize releases from the reservoir to “maintain the delta’s water quality, protect endangered species and meet the needs of high-level water rights,” officials said, and to conserve as much reservoir as possible.

The allotment increase should also keep most water districts from having to make the most severe cuts, including the Metropolitan Water District in Southern California, the state’s biggest customer.

The agency, which provides water to about 19 million people in six counties, gets about a third of its supply from the state, with the rest coming from the Colorado River and other sources such as local stormwater, groundwater, and recycling and desalination.

“The snow and rain we received in December brought much-needed relief to the extremely dry conditions that were challenging our state,” said Adel Hagekhalil, the agency’s general manager.

But, he added, “the 15% allocation is still very low and our water supplies from the state water project remain exceptionally limited.”

“Even with this modest allocation, we must continue to deplete our storage reserves to meet demand,” Hagekhalil said. “For these reserves to be sufficient if dry conditions prevail into next year, we all need to use water as efficiently as possible.”

The agency declared a drought emergency in Southern California in November after Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a similar statewide statement in October. Neither declaration has been rescinded, and the governor is still asking residents to voluntarily reduce their water use by 15%.

Many experts say the past few dry years have taught some hard lessons for California, which is likely to become increasingly drier and hotter due to the effects of climate change.

Even after December’s rains, officials at the State Water Resources Control Board passed regulations banning water wastage — a strong indication that drought conditions are persisting and that conservation efforts should continue.

“We’re not over the hill yet,” Chief Deputy Director Eric Oppenheimer said at the time.

Hagekhalil stressed that the state needs “bold and strategic investments” in water storage, transportation and conservation, as well as direct support from federal and state governments, to help communities better prepare for future droughts and climate change.

For its part, the Department of Water Resources said officials continue to plan for “climate uncertainty” by implementing technologies to improve forecasting and monitoring capabilities, among other things.

The state water project’s annual allotment — which is initially announced on December 1 each year — is continuously updated during the winter months, the department said. The final allocation will take place in May or June. Storms in December allow for an increase in state water supplies

Tom Vazquez

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