Another Dry Winter Could Mean More Water Cutbacks For Californians

CREDIT: AP Photo / Metropolitan Water District of Southern California

An aqueduct in Southern California.

An aqueduct in Southern California.

An aqueduct in Southern California.

CREDIT: AP Photo / MWD of Southern California

Another round of water shortages will likely come to California next year, if this winter sees less precipitation than usual.

The L. A. Times reports that state officials are not prepared to declare another drought, but current water supplies only cover one more year. If precipitation this winter is sufficiently low, California residents will face mandatory cutbacks in their water use.

As of this past May, California’s snowpack amounts were only at 17 percent of their normal levels for this time of year. Snowpack supplies one third of the state’s fresh water, and up to three-fourths for western California.

The state’s water reservoirs are already low thanks two previous years of drought: Lake Shasta is at 66 percent of its average level for this time of year, and Lake Oroville is at 73 percent. Approximately one quarter of Southern California’s water also comes courtesy of the Colorado River basin, and Colorado’s last two years were among the driest in nearly a century. Two of the state’s major reservoirs — Lake Powell and Lake Mead — are less than half full.

California Gov. Jerry Brown is pushing a massive new water project to upgrade the state’s existing infrastructure and build tunnels to bring new water supplies from California’s northern end — where most of the precipitation falls — down to the cities and farms of the south and Central Valley. An economic study in August estimated the project would bring a net benefit to California of around $5 billion, but regionally the north would see a loss of jobs and environmental quality while the offsetting benefits would accrue in the south. Opponents also questioned the study’s methodology.

The plan depends on a precarious coalition of Democrats, Republicans, farmers, environmentalists, etc., and its opposition comes in a similar mix. The federal government is also tepid on the plan, and many California voters are arguably unaware of the severity of the state’s problems.

On the plus side, policy changes and the widespread use of low-flow home fixtures by Californians have kept Southern California’s water use stable over the last two decades, despite the influx of about one million new residents over that same period. And many of California’s farmers have taken on dry farming practices to try and deal with the drought conditions. Nevertheless, the state’s corn yields have dropped to 30-year lows, and its livestock and water supplies have also been hard hit.

Other states like Texas are going through similar challenges, as economic damage and rising political battles pile up under the pressure of ongoing drought and dwindling water supplies.

Brown signed several smaller bills aimed at improving California’s water supplies last week, but by all accounts the viability of Gov. Brown’s larger water plan remains in serious contention.