Drought: Northern Reservoirs at 96%; CA to Ease Emergency

(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)
Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press

With Northern California’s massive Shasta and Orville dams about to fill up for the first time in five years of drought, the state is about to lift mandatory statewide water conservation order for most cities and farms.

Members of the California Water Resources Control Board will meet on May 18 to discuss terminating the state’s 11-month-old emergency drought order, which required at least 25 percent water conservation overall by most of the water districts serving the state’s 39 million residents.

Californians achieved a cumulative savings of 23.9 percent in water use during the emergency period that began with Gov. Jerry Brown’s June 2015 mandate. According to Water Resources Control Board Chair Felicia Marcus, the water saved during the period is enough to supply more than 5.9 million Californians for one year — about the combined population of San Diego, Riverside, and Tulare counties.

Shasta Dam, California’s largest reservoir, dropped to just 29 percent of its capacity in December 2015. But since then, El Niño conditions in the Pacific have brought above-average precipitation totals to much of California, particularly near northern reservoirs. As a result, the water level has risen by 140 feet to 11.24 feet from cresting over the top of the spillway.

Due to early El Niño weather conditions, the statewide 2016 snowpack started the year off at 136 percent of normal, as measured on December 30, 2015. But combined with a warm spring and continuing rains, the huge Northern California reservoirs of Shasta and Oroville are now at about 96 percent of total capacity.

Water officials said May 9 that they might ease mandatory drought restriction for cities and water agencies if they can prove they have enough water to get by if the wet winter proves a blip, and drought continues another three years.

Marcus, quoted by the Washington Postwarned, “This is not a time to start using water like its 1999 … this year could simply be a punctuation mark in a mega-drought.”

Brown ordered the conservation effort last year after California’s driest four-year stretch in recorded history. He demanded that conservation must continue because of climate change: “We know that drought is becoming a regular occurrence and water conservation must be a part of our everyday life.”

Facing a set of statistics on storage that will force the water board to increase supplies, Brown issued an extraordinary executive order Monday that would make permanent some of the measures adopted to deal with the current drought.

Brown will require the state’s 430 water districts to keep reporting their monthly water use. Certain water-wasting, such as letting lawn sprinklers send water streaming into the street, and washing cars in driveways without a shut-off nozzle, will be banned permanently.

Brown’s order requires more intensive drought planning by both urban water districts and farms, and he directed state water officials to prepare new water restrictions in case the drought carries into 2017.

Despite the strong El Niño, nearly 90 percent of California remains in moderate drought or worse. Unless late rains fall, Southern California is heading deeper into a fifth year of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor report last week.


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