California Halts Major Water Delivery Service, Yet Doesn’t Call For Mandatory Water Restrictions

CREDIT: AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

For the first time ever, a major water delivery system in California will make no deliveries, state officials announced Friday.

The California State Water Project is a system of reservoirs, aqueducts, power plants and pumping plants that supplies water to 25 million Californians — about 65 percent of the state — and 750,000 acres of farmland. The Department of Water Resources’ decision to shut off deliveries for the SWP doesn’t mean that these Californians will be without water — rather, they’ll be forced to rely on other sources. But the low levels of the state’s key reservoirs means that these other water sources are strained as well.

“Today’s actions mean that everyone — farmers, fish, people in our cities and towns — will get less water,” Department of Water Resources director Mark Cowin said. “But these actions will protect us all better in the long run. Simply put, there’s not enough water to go around.”

The situation is dire in parts of California. Seventeen rural communities are in danger of running out of water in 60 to 120 days, communities that in all are home to about 40,000 residents. Now that the SWP deliveries have stopped, officials predict the number of communities on the brink of running out of water could rise. If communities run out of water, it will have to be trucked in, and additional wells will have to be drilled.

The drought, which has been intensifying over the last three years, has been hard on Californians. Ranchers, worried their grass won’t turn from brown to green anytime soon, have begun selling parts of their herds. A rancher and auction house owner said the number of cattle that come through his auction has jumped to 800 — 1,000 a week, up from the 100 – 150 he usually sells in a week. It’s also been hard on fish — Coho salmon, which usually travel up California creeks and rivers to spawn, have been stranded in the ocean by creeks that have run dry or been blocked by sandbars. The drought threatens this fish, which is already endangered, with extinction in much of its native range.

Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency in California in January, and has said his administration is “taking every possible step to prepare the state for the continuing dry conditions we face.” But so far, Brown has only called for voluntary restrictions on water usage from California citizens and businesses, calling on Californians to voluntarily reduce their water consumption by 20 percent. The LA Times’ editorial board questioned this hesitance to enact mandatory restrictions on water, at least at this point in the drought, saying that though Californians have been historically good at conserving water when asked, enacting mandatory restrictions or enforcing them in cities such as Los Angeles, where they’re already in place, makes sense in a mega drought.

“A mandate rather than a request can mean the difference between a homeowner choosing to replace a lawn with a drought-tolerant landscape this year or waiting until next year,” the board writes.

Some local governments have taken the water issue into their own hands, however. On Friday, Orange Cove, a town of about 10,000, forbade outdoor water use and mandated that leaks and plumbing breaks be repaired.