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Regional Interests

Drought-Stricken California Hasn’t Mandated Statewide Water Restrictions. Here’s Why.

After two consecutive dry winters and a series of early summer heat waves, the vast majority of California is gripped by drought.

Water levels in reservoirs like Lake Oroville, Shasta Lake, and Lake Mendocino are dangerously low. Wells in parts of the San Joaquin Valley and along the Russian River are drying up, and local water officials have mandated water restrictions up to 40%, in some areas.

Already, more than 85% of California is experiencing extreme drought conditions, according to the latest drought monitor released on July 15, and experts forewarn a third year of drought could be on the horizon if the state doesn’t see significant winter rain storms.

Former Gov. Jerry Brown required Californians to conserve 25% of their water during the third year of the last major drought. State leaders have not yet taken that step during this year.

Last week, Governor Gavin Newsom asked for a 15% voluntary statewide water reduction, noting California isn’t what he called a “nanny state.”

“We’re not trying to be oppressive,” Newsom said during a press conference. “Again, these are voluntary standards.”

Karla Nemeth, director of the California Department of Water Resources, says one reason for the voluntary restrictions is that Californian’s water use is down 16% compared to the last drought. That’s when many people ditched their grassy lawns in favor of native plants and rock gardens. Others have installed home grey water systems.

Nemeth says water officials are pursing a more targeted approach this time around, relying on regional restrictions to reduce water waste, with the recognition that water supplies vary across the state.

But, she says, if the rains don’t fall, the state could require water savings again.

“By the end of this year, if we’re preparing for another extraordinarily dry year, then we could see California move towards mandatory water reduction,” she said.

During the last drought, the state asked for water conservation before requiring it, but many Californians shrugged off that ask.

Nemeth says she expects more compliance this time around. “I actually believe that we are going to see some better results from voluntary water conservation this year than we did during the [last] drought,” she said.

Even with all that California is facing — heat waves, wildfire risk, and lack of rain — UC Davis water resources expert Jay Lund says requiring places that don’t need to conserve as much water right now like Los Angeles and San Francisco would “make them less receptive to being told later on when you really need to conserve a lot of water to do so.”  

Lund says the slow rollout of drought emergency declarations and restrictions is about “retaining” the public’s trust, recognizing that conditions could stay dry for a long time.

“I think particularly in this era where [people are] a lot more distrustful of government, we really need to be careful with the public’s trust and to treat that as a scarce resource,” he said.

“In this case, there’s a lot of precedent for not pressing urban water conservation too hard, especially when most of the state is in fairly good shape —  at least most of the population,” he said.

Rethinking How California Manages Water

But for many people who live in places like the San Joaquin Valley where wells are going dry, the light water restrictions feels like a gut punch, says Veronica Garibay, co-executive director with the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability. 

“It’s 109 degrees in Fresno today,” she said over Zoom during the second week of July. “Imagine having to work outside all day and come home and not being able to shower in your own home. I think it’s infuriating, and disappointing and sort of feels hopeless. Have we not learned our lesson here?”

Garibay’s group advocates for communities in the Central Valley and the Coachella Valley where the drought is making existing inequities worse. She hopes existing legislation will help bring drought relief to communities dealing with the worst of the drought.

“Why is the burden on communities and people of color in particular, who have the least access to safe water and are disproportionately impacted by dry wells and access to safe drinking water to begin with?” she asked.

With the most vulnerable in mind, Faith Kearns says it’s time officials started thinking of drought as a chronic issue as opposed to an acute idea where California could be saved by rain each year. She’s a scientist for the California Institute of Water Resources. 

“I think the set of actions we might take will start to look a little bit different,” she said. “I don’t totally know what those are yet. Maybe those voluntary water reductions are permanent.”

Whether the current reductions become part of our permanent California way of life is still to be determined, but scientists like Kearns say climate change is stressing the state’s water system.

Solutions for future dry times in California may require the state to re-think how it manages water, Kearns says, beyond measures needed to get the state through this drought. Water managers need to consider that the state is experiencing a “drier, hotter climate.”

“It’s not an acute issue where we’re having a drought emergency, but one where we’re really going, ‘No, this is the long term trend, and we need to be long-term adapting to it,'” she said.

Blessed With a Wet Winter? ‘It’s Equally Likely That We Won’t Be’

Stanford’s Noah Diffenbaugh says people should adhere to the 15% voluntary restriction as if it were mandatory. 

“We don’t have drought relief on the horizon and we can expect these conditions to intensify,” he said.

Diffenbaugh has authored scientific papers with titles like “Anthropogenic warming has increased drought risk in California” he says he didn’t expect the state to be “in this severe drought, this soon.”

“But we shouldn’t be surprised,” he said. “And there’s not a lot of reason to expect that we’ll just get out of it soon, either.”

The last multi-year drought lasted from 2011 to 2017. If it is any indicator of what could happen this time around, then all water restrictions should be taken seriously. That’s because the outlook for a wet fall is still fifty-fifty, says UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain. 

“The situation is arguably more precarious than last time,” he said. “Now we could be blessed with a wet winter, but it’s equally likely that we won’t be and that we could see another dry winter. There’s a decent chance that things actually get worse still before they get better. And that’s pretty concerning, because they’re already quite serious.”

But Swain says a wet fall would be contrary to the trend: California is having shorter rainy seasons, more concentrated in the winter. And some scientists consider California’s current dry period as part of the West’s megadrought, the first to be driven by human-caused climate change.

“My fervent hope is that we see some early onset to the rainy season this year,” he said. “It’s possible. There’s no indication of it, but it’s hypothetically possible.”

Copyright 2021 KQED