With wildfires raging, California is once again facing very challenging drought conditions less than two years after the last extreme water shortage event.
Indeed, although the US Drought Monitor records much of the state is in exceptional drought conditions, the frequency of Californian water shortages suggests extreme drought is emerging as a long-term trend which is being made worse by climate change.
The scale of California's drought problem
According to the Drought Monitor the whole state and much of the western US is in drought conditions. Exceptional drought takes California to the point that fish rescue and relocation must begin, pine beetle infestation occurs and even the forests start to die.
Certainly, California’s water shortages are so extreme that there are very real concerns over agricultural production and even the availability of water for power generation, further exacerbating the state’s problems.
"California is facing the familiar reality of drought conditions, and we know the importance of acting early to anticipate and mitigate the most severe impacts where possible.”
With almost all of the state’s major reservoirs below their historical summer average, hydropower generation is a risk across the state.
At Lake Oroville and the Oroville dam, for example, water levels are near historical lows with the reservoir only at about 35 per cent full. The low water record was set back in 1977. Water levels are so low that the 644 MW Edward Hyatt hydropower station may be forced to shut down for the first time.
As conditions continue to worsen, back in May California Governor Kevin Newsom declared an expanded drought emergency, increasing the drought emergency beyond that announced in April.
Now at least 41 counties and about a third of the state’s people are under a state of emergency as a result of the drought. The emergency requires accelerated action to protect public health, safety and the environment with Newsom directing state agencies to take immediate action to bolster drought resilience and prepare for impacts.
“California is facing the familiar reality of drought conditions, and we know the importance of acting early to anticipate and mitigate the most severe impacts where possible. Climate change is intensifying both the frequency and the severity of dry periods. This ‘new normal’ gives urgency to building drought resilience in regions across the state,” Newsom said in a statement.
Pushing investment in infrastructure
In a bid to ramp up actions to improve water infrastructure as he extended the area of the drought emergency Governor Newsom also announced a $5.1 billion package of measures to support water and wastewater infrastructure.
Part of the state’s $100 Billion California Comeback Plan, the measures include immediate drought responses, as well as long-term water resilience investments.
Among the plans, the four-year programme includes $1.3 billion for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, with a focus on small and disadvantaged communities as well as $300 million for Sustainable Groundwater Management Act implementation to improve water supply security, water quality and water reliability and $150 million for groundwater clean-up and water recycling projects.
"Shoring up our water resilience, especially in small and disadvantaged communities, is imperative to safeguarding the future of our state."
In addition, $91 million has been allocated for critical data collection to repair and augment the state’s water data infrastructure to improve forecasting, monitoring, and assessment of hydrologic conditions.
“Shoring up our water resilience, especially in small and disadvantaged communities, is imperative to safeguarding the future of our state in the face of devastating climate change impacts that are intensifying drought conditions and threatening our communities, the economy and the environment,” said Newsom announcing the measures.
“This package will equip the state with the tools to tackle the drought emergency while addressing long-standing water challenges and helping to secure vital and limited water supplies,” he added.
Increasing water resilience
Responding to the investment plans, Dave Eggerton, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA), said: “ACWA has strongly advocated for funding investments aimed at increasing water resilience. From droughts, floods, catastrophic wildfires, and sea level rise, water managers are faced with growing challenges. For these reasons, ACWA supports state funding for immediate drought relief and longer-term projects that will increase California’s water resilience.”
The plan chimes with the state Water Resilience Portfolio roadmap which was revealed in July 2020.
Developed by California’s Natural Resources Agency, Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Food and Agriculture the Portfolio aims to achieve water security for California in the face of climate change.
California’s new water infrastructure investment programme also follows on from the recent passage of the 2021 Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act through the Senate. The bill reauthorises several core federal water funding programmes such as the $14.65 billion Clean Water State Revolving Fund (SRF), which will be financed for the next five years.
Utilities tackling consumer behaviour
Alongside longer-term state-backed infrastructure investments, individual water supply companies are also initiating measures to conserve water.
California Water is one of the largest water suppliers in the state and has introduced a number of water shortage measures designed to reduce consumption. These measures include banning the use of water for non-irrigated landscapes, limiting activities like car washing and tackling any failures to repair leaks.
"The utility has been preparing for drought conditions by replacing, repairing, and upgrading infrastructure to minimise water losses."
Restaurants must also only serve water upon request, and hotels and motels must offer the option to opt out of daily linen and towel washing services, for example. With 12 Cal Water districts under the drought emergency rules, the company is encouraging customers reduce their water use. It’s offering rebates on high-efficiency appliances and devices. A free water conservation kit includes a garden hose nozzle with shutoff valve and high-efficiency showerheads.
The utility has been preparing for drought conditions by replacing, repairing, and upgrading infrastructure to minimize water losses, it says.
“We hope that we will be able to achieve necessary water savings through voluntary conservation efforts. We will continue to monitor conditions in each of our service areas to determine if additional actions are required,” said Martin A. Kropelnicki, Cal Water’s president and CEO.
“Although our efforts are critically important, they can’t take the place of customer conservation efforts,” he added.
Embracing the new normal
Similarly, Golden State Water Company is another state utility that is encouraging customers to voluntarily conserve and continue using water responsibly. Their customers are being asked to limit outdoor irrigation and refrain from watering lawns and gardens during daylight hours, for example.
It is clear that Californian drought is a new normal, but it is also clear that even with billions of dollars of infrastructure investment, it is every day consumer actions that will ultimately have the biggest impact on California’s water.
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