Officials Search For Plan As California Reservoirs Drop Below Half Capacity

CREDIT: Shutterstock: Katarish

A Sierra Nevada reservoir.

California is known for its massive water infrastructure in which northern reservoirs, which fill up from the Sierra Nevada snowpack, supply the populous southern and coastal regions of the state. However going into a third year of dry winter conditions, many of these northern man-made oases are at precariously low levels, hovering between one-third and one-half capacity, far less than the average for October.

More than 20 million Californians and many farmers in the state’s crop-intensive Central Valley depend on northern reservoirs for their water.

“Both the State Water Project and federal Central Valley Project heavily depend on the Sierra Nevada snowpack,” Mark Cowin, director of the state Department of Water Resources, told The Fresno Bee. “We are now facing real trouble if 2014 is dry.”

Cowin said that dwindling reservoirs should be a wake-up call to Californians, and indicate that it’s time to prepare for additional water-conservation measures.

Pete Lucero of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, owner of the Central Valley Project, told the Fresno Bee that January through May 2013 were California’s driest in about 90 years of recordkeeping.

Currently the San Luis Reservoir, which gets water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, is only 22 percent of its historical average for this time of year.

At a recent workshop that brought together leaders to hear about California’s water challenges, Cowin said that decades of disagreement among environmentalists, farmers, water agencies, and other interests in various parts of California has “resulted in gridlock.” And that with “environmental laws, climate change, and population growth intensifying the conflict, there’s simply no time to waste.”

California’s other main source of water comes via the Colorado River Basin, originating in the Rocky Mountains. More than a decade of drought has left both Lake Powell and Lake Mead less than half full. About a quarter of urban Southern California depends on these reservoirs for supply.

Water has historically been the lifeblood of Southern California, as anyone who’s seen the movie “Chinatown” knows, and whomever controls the flow of water has great power and responsibility. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has taken measures to encourage conservation such as giving rebates for residential lawn removal. According to The Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles now uses less water than it did four decades ago, even though it has added more than one million residents during that time. Per-person water use in Los Angeles is 123 gallons a day, compared to 187 gallons in the mid 1980s.

Just this week on his first trip to D.C. as Los Angeles’s Mayor, Eric Garcetti personally lobbied officials to support federal approval for a $1 billion project to restore the Los Angeles River. Garcetti even got to discuss the subject with President Obama during their 15-minute discussion in the Oval Office. While the focus of the project is to restore ecosystems and create green space, not necessarily water conservation, it still illustrates the demand for water in a part of the state that has very little of it naturally.

At the state level, Governor Jerry Brown is also taking proactive measures. Earlier this month he signed more than a dozen bills aimed at improving water supply and access in the state.

According to Reuters, the new laws address some of the state’s most immediate water concerns such as the difficulties faced by communities when groundwater becomes polluted. They also address recycling wastewater for drinking or cooking, which Brown called a key to achieving more access to high-quality water.