California experiences driest three years ever recorded

California’s current drought is the state’s driest three-year period on record, beating the old record set during the previous drought of 2013-2015, officials said Monday — and a fourth dry year is increasingly likely.

The news came just days after the state began its new water year, an annual hydrological period that runs from October 1 to September 30. The 2022 water year was marked by dramatic swings between wet and dry conditions and a record-breaking heatwave in early September.

With long-term projections suggesting conditions will remain warmer and drier than average, officials said there is still much uncertainty about what the new water year could bring, even as residents continue to conserve water at a commendable pace.

“This is our new climate reality and we must adapt,” Karla Nemeth, director of the Department of Water Resources, said in a statement. “As California transitions into a hotter, drier future, our extreme swings in wet and dry conditions will continue. We are now preparing for a prolonged extreme drought and are working with our federal, state, local and academic partners to plan for a future where we see less precipitation overall and more rain than snow.”

The 2022 water year ended with statewide rainfall of 76% of the average and statewide reservoir storage of 69% of the average for the season, officials said. Reservoir levels are slightly better than last year, but still well below normal, as nearly 95% of California continues to live in extreme, extraordinary, or severe drought, the US Drought Monitor’s top three worst categories.

But historical patterns are increasingly being thrown off balance by human-caused climate change, meaning additional challenges are “feeding into water management,” state climatologist Michael Anderson told the Water Resources Control Board during a meeting on Monday. The 2022 water year began with a particularly wet and snowy September to December, followed by the driest January to March in over 100 years.

It was a pattern not dissimilar to the previous drought, Anderson said, in which a wet November and December from 2013 gave way to one of the state’s driest stretches on record.

“This year we surpassed that — a decade later, drier and warmer than 2013,” he said. “And that’s something else that we’re anticipating: These things that we thought would be once in a lifetime, once in a career, are now going to be episodic and in some cases can become mundane, which is going to be really challenging.” .”

Anderson said the current dry triennium is the driest since records began in 1896. Additionally, a persistent La Niña climate pattern in the tropical Pacific is expected to persist for a rare third year this fall and winter, he said. La Niña can tip the scales toward drought, especially in Southern California, but it’s not a guarantee and much depends on where the system’s high pressure manifests itself.

“There’s a whole lot of uncertainty right now,” Anderson said.

In response to this uncertainty, officials underscored the need for water conservation to remain a “way of life” in California. State residents reduced their average water use to 105 gallons per person per day in August — the second-lowest such use in August after 2015, according to statewide mandates from the then-government. According to conservation commissioner Charlotte Ely, Jerry Brown has pulled the numbers down.

Residents saved 10.5% more water in August than in the same month in 2020 — the year the current drought began and the baseline against which such savings are measured.

“We’re continuing the trend we’ve been seeing since May,” Ely said. “This puts California back on track in conserving water, especially since water use typically increases in the summer when our irrigation needs increase. These double digit numbers that we are seeing really show that people and the municipal water companies that serve them are taking these more aggressive actions to curb and reduce water use.”

However, some areas save more than others. For example, the South Coast Hydrologic Region, which is home to Los Angeles, was mid-table in August with 9.7% savings compared to 18% in the South Lahontan Region at the high end and 3.9% in the Colorado River Region at the low end .

The cumulative savings since last July, when Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency and asked all residents to voluntarily reduce water use by 15%, is 4%, Ely said.

She also pointed out that unless drought conditions improve, a third round of emergency water conservation orders is likely. The first such ordinance, passed in January, required residents to more closely monitor their water use and banned certain wasteful water-use practices nationwide, including the use of decorative water fountains.

The second ordinance, passed in May, banned the use of potable water on “non-functional” grass on commercial, industrial and institutional properties, and also required city water utilities to implement at least Tier 2 of their water scarcity contingency plans.

Ely said a third regulation would likely set standards for indoor and outdoor residential water use and establish percentage reductions for city retail water utilities, along with other measures in support of Newsom’s new water plan unveiled in August.

“One of the things that [Newsom’s] Kind of a strategy for the world was that hotter and drier conditions driven by climate change and drought are projected to reduce California’s water supply by 10% by 2040,” Ely said. She said the projection underscores the state’s need to invest in new sources, accelerate projects and embrace new technologies.

Last week, Newsom also signed Senate Bill 1157 into law, updating standards for indoor water use in hopes of saving at least 450,000 acre-feet of water per year by 2030, Ely said. The bill outlines a water conservation framework that includes setting 55 gallons per person per day as the standard for indoor water use by 2025. From 2025 to 2030 this number will drop to 47 and after 2030 to 42 .

Officials also noted Monday that it’s not just city dwellers who are facing dehydration. More than 200 dry wells in private homes have dried up in the past 30 days, drought program manager Eric Zúñiga told the board, bringing the year’s total dry wells to 2,031 — a 49% increase from the same period last year.

Experts have found that dry wells and drought conditions are also affecting water quality in the state, as shrinking groundwater supplies can have higher concentrations of pollutants such as arsenic and hexavalent chromium. Nearly 1 million Californians — most of them in low-income and communities of color — live with unsafe drinking water today.

DWR drought manager Jeanine Jones said many agricultural users also saw significant cuts this year, including 50% cuts in the state water project for Feather River water rights billing companies and 0% allocations from the Central Valley project to many of its agricultural contractors. A significant reduction in rice acreage this year could have unintended consequences for birds that rely on flooded paddy fields during their autumn migration, she said.

Jones also said the challenges don’t stop at state lines. The Colorado River — a major source of water for California and surrounding states — is nearing historic lows, and federal officials are pressuring states to significantly reduce their reliance on the river or face painful cuts.

“Realistically, our current drought in the Colorado River basin began in 2000, and this is something that’s not going to recover quickly in a watershed of this magnitude — certainly not just a single wet year, if we’re going to have that,” she said reporters.

Nemeth, the DWR director, said the priorities for the 2023 water year are continuing to meet minimum human health and safety requirements, protecting the state’s endangered fish and wildlife, and preserving water quality in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a linchpin of the state, system that provides millions of people with municipal drinking water.

“It’s not a huge surprise that we are planning a fourth straight dry year and are certainly discussing the potential for more flood-drought interfaces this year,” she told the board.

Chief Executive Joaquin Esquivel said the pattern of extremes made the state’s water more difficult to manage.

“That kind of dynamic that we’re seeing — where we have these flood events as well with general dryness and drought — it’s a lot to watch,” he said. “And basically that means we just have to be prepared for both.” California experiences driest three years ever recorded

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