What the Colorado River Crisis Means for Southern California
Call it water whiplash: As California recovers from one of its wettest months in recent history, the Colorado River continues to taper to dangerous lows.
As a result, Southern Californians are unsure whether to expect a shortage or a surplus in the coming year. Although the state is snow-covered and sodden by a series of riverine atmospheric storms, the region remains under a drought emergency declaration by Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District. This includes mandatory water restrictions for approximately 6 million people in and around Los Angeles.
Early season storms have relieved the drought, but most officials say easing water restrictions would be premature. In fact, the severity of the crisis on the Colorado — and the federal mandate that California and six other states drastically reduce their water use from that river — means more calls for conservation are likely in the months ahead. to come, according to MWD Managing Director Adel Hagekhalil.
The wet start to the year “shouldn’t stop us from continuing to work on building resilience, recycling water and storing water when we have it,” Hagekhalil said. “We should conserve as much as possible so that we can save water to have it available when we need it.”
Hagekhalil said January’s moisture blast was characteristic of climate change, which leads to huge fluctuations between episodes of extreme humidity and extreme drought. In 2022, an equally strong start to the rainy season ended with the driest January, February and March on record, meaning there’s no guarantee the state will always be wet in spring.
“I don’t want to deal with the water supply in Southern California on a monthly, daily basis,” he said. “I want to look long-term at how we can create a resilient water future for everyone, leaving no one behind.”
The storms have spurred the Department of Water Resources enough to temporarily increase this year’s state water project allocation from 5% to 30% for its 29 agencies, including MWD. The State Water Project is a system of reservoirs, canals and dams that is a major part of California’s water system.
But Southern California still gets about half of its water from the Colorado River, which hasn’t really benefited from the storms and remains remarkably tight, Hagekhalil said.
He said the MWD board will assess the water supply by June to determine whether to upgrade areas dependent on the Colorado River from their current voluntary 20% reduction to a mandatory allocation – a decision made by the agency last year for areas dependent on the state water project. .
While plans may change, MWD will likely aim for “uniformity across the region to make sure we all continue to save, especially with what we’re seeing on the Colorado River,” Hagekhalil said.
Some decisions also rest with individual agencies, which often depend on local conditions for their supplies. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Electricity serves approximately 4 million people and receives some of its water from the MWD. Officials there have never distinguished between customers dependent on the Colorado River and the state water project and instead, last June, placed their entire service area under restrictions. watering two days a week. DWP spokeswoman Ellen Cheng said Friday that while the recent storms were welcome, “the region’s water problems are not over.”
“Reservoirs and storage in the state are still recovering, and the impacts of reductions in Colorado River use have yet to be resolved,” she said. “For now, LA is staying the course with the current outdoor irrigation restrictions, and we are closely monitoring supply conditions as they continue to develop over the next two months.”
She added that DWP encourages customers to “keep their foot on the pedal” and continue to use water efficiently, including taking advantage of turf replacement programs to reduce water usage.
However, other regions are planning to ease the restrictions. The Municipal Water District of Las Virgenes, which serves approximately 75,000 residents of Agoura Hills, Calabasas, Hidden Hills and Westlake, plans in the coming week to recommend to its board of directors a Stage 3 reduction in its water shortage contingency plan in less restrictive Stage 2, spokesman Mike McNutt said.
Las Virgenes receives almost all of its supplies from the State Water Project and was one of the areas hardest hit by reduced allocations last year.
If the move is approved, Stage 2 would relax mandatory water restrictions and create a new district-wide goal for a voluntary 20% reduction in water use, McNutt said. The district would also increase water budgets to where they were before the drought emergency and stop installing flow restriction devices except for potential cases of excessive and repeated overuse.
“Over the past six months, our customers have seen an average of 40% reduction in water usage compared to 2020 figures, which is remarkable,” McNutt said.
The agency is also moving forward with plans to build a sewage purification facility to reduce its reliance on imported supplies.
At the Inland Empire Utilities Agency in San Bernardino, officials are more cautious about the months ahead. The wholesaler, which serves around 935,000 people, has been at Level 6 of its contingency plan for water shortages since December – the most severe level, reflecting a shortage of 50% or more.
“While the winter storms have brought us much-needed relief, our state still faces significant water supply challenges in the future,” Chief Executive Shivaji Deshmukh said in a statement Friday.
Deshmukh said the IEUA is working closely with the MWD to assess how recent changes in imported supplies will affect the region.
“While the long-term impacts are still unknown, we believe the increased state water project allocation will provide our client agencies with supplies to better meet regional consumption demands for the first six month of 2023,” he said. “Nevertheless, it is essential that we continue to work and support our client agencies in implementing their water use efficiency programs and help educate the community on the importance of conservation. and the use of valuable local supplies.”
Such uncertainty is not unique to Southern California. Residents of all 58 counties in the state remain under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s drought emergency declaration, and state officials have said it is too early in the rainy season to even consider lifting this order.
“We have a 30% allocation for the state water project, the Los Angeles water system has a big snowpack right now…and then we have the Colorado River system, which is a question mark at this point,” Jeanine Jones, drought manager at DWR, said during a press briefing this week.
Newsom first placed Sonoma and Mendocino counties under a drought emergency in April 2021, then added more counties in May and July before expanding the order statewide in October. Jones said if and when the time comes, California will likely emerge from the drought emergency as it came — county by county or region by region.
“We can talk about things like statewide snowpack, statewide runoff, statewide precipitation, but water supply is a function local, and it really depends on the circumstances affecting a particular community or region,” Jones said. “Some areas will likely come out of drought conditions due to the very wet conditions we’ve been experiencing, but it really depends on the circumstances of a water provider’s individual supply sources.”
Jones said groundwater, the state’s aquifer system, remains severely depleted and could take years to recharge. Lake Mead and Lake Powell will also need more than one rainy season to fill up, she said, noting that the drought in the Colorado River basin began in 2000.
MWD’s Hagekhalil said the fragility of the system means every drop is precious, and the likelihood of an eventual return to drought in California is all the more reason to conserve water and snow here.
“We can’t just adapt to the rain and wait for the rain,” he said. “It’s bigger than all of us. The climate has changed and we have to change.
Los Angeles Times