What the Colorado River crisis means for Southern California

Call it whiplash: As California recovers from one of its wettest months in recent history, the Colorado River is still shrinking to dangerous lows.

As a result, Southern Californians are unsure whether to expect a shortage or a surplus in the coming year. Though the state has been snowcapped and softened by a series of atmospheric river storms, the region remains under a drought emergency declaration from Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District. This includes mandatory water restrictions for about 6 million people in and around Los Angeles.

Storms earlier in the season provided some drought relief, but most officials say it would be premature to ease water restrictions. In fact, the severity of the Colorado crisis — and the federal mandate that California and six other states significantly reduce their water use from that river — means more calls for conservation are likely in the coming months, according to MWD Director General Adel Hagekhalil.

The wet start to the year “shouldn’t discourage 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 conserve water to have it available when we need it.”

Hagekhalil said January’s surge in humidity is characteristic of climate change, which is triggering wide swings between bouts of extreme wet and extreme drought. In 2022, a similarly strong start to the rainy season ended with the driest January, February and March on record – meaning there’s no guarantee the state will still be wet in the spring.

“I don’t want to have to deal with the water supply in Southern California every month and every day,” he said. “I want to take a long-term look at how we can create a resilient water future for all without leaving anyone behind.”

The storms gave the Department of Water Resources enough of a boost to tentatively increase this year’s state water project allocation for its 29 agencies, including the MWD, from 5% to 30%. The State Water Project is a system of reservoirs, canals and dams that is an important part of California’s water system.

But southern California still gets about half its water from the Colorado River, which hasn’t really benefited from the storms and remains remarkably strained, Hagekhalil said.

He said MWD’s board of directors will evaluate the water supply by June to determine whether Colorado River dependent areas should be upgraded from their current voluntary 20% reduction to a mandatory allocation — a move the agency announced last year for dated State Water Project Dependent Areas has made .

While plans are subject to change, MWD will likely “seek consistency across the region to ensure we all continue to save, especially given what we’re seeing on the Colorado River,” Hagekhalil said.

Some decisions also fall to individual agencies, which are often dependent on local conditions for their supply. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Energy serves approximately 4 million people and receives a portion of its water from the MWD. Officials there have never distinguished between Colorado River and State Water Project-dependent customers, instead placing their entire service area under two-day-a-week irrigation restrictions last June. DWP spokeswoman Ellen Cheng said Friday that while the recent storms are welcome, “the region’s water woes are not over yet.”

“Reservoirs and reservoirs within the state are still recovering, and the impact of reducing Colorado River use has yet to be addressed,” she said. “LA is maintaining current outdoor irrigation restrictions for now, and we are closely monitoring supply conditions as they evolve over the next few months.”

She added that DWP encourages customers to “keep their foot on the pedal” and continue to use water efficiently, including utilizing turf replacement programs to reduce water use.

However, other areas plan to ease restrictions. The Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, which serves about 75,000 residents in Agoura Hills, Calabasas, Hidden Hills and Westlake, plans next week to recommend its board a reduction from Level 3 of its Water Scarcity Contingency Plan to the less restrictive Level 2, spokesman Mike McNutt said .

Las Virgenes gets nearly all of its supplies from the state water project and was among 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 pre-drought levels and stop installing flow-restriction devices, barring potential instances of excessive and repeated overuse.

“Over the past six months, our customers have reduced water use by an average of 40% compared to 2020 numbers, which is remarkable,” said McNutt.

The agency is also moving ahead with plans to build a wastewater treatment plant to reduce its reliance on imported supplies.

At the Inland Empire Utilities Agency in San Bernardino, officials are more cautious about the coming months. The wholesaler, which serves around 935,000 people, has been in Stage 6 of its Water Scarcity Contingency Plan since December — the most severe stage, reflecting a shortage of 50% or more.

“While the winter storms have provided us with much-needed relief, our state continues to face significant water supply challenges,” general manager Shivaji Deshmukh said in a statement on 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 impact is still unknown, we believe the increase in the government water project allocation will provide our customer agencies with supplies to better meet regional consumption needs for the first six months of 2023,” he said. “Nevertheless, it is critical that we continue to work with our client agencies and support them in the implementation of their water use efficiency programs and help educate the community on the importance of protecting the environment and utilizing valuable local resources.”

This uncertainty is not unique to Southern California. Residents in all 58 counties in the state remain subject to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s drought emergency declaration, and state officials said it was too early in the rainy season to even consider lifting the order.

“We have a 30% allocation for the State Water Project, the Los Angeles Aqueduct system has great snow cover right now… and then we have the Colorado River system, which is a question mark at this point,” said Jeanine Jones, DWR drought manager said during a news conference 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 to state-wide in October. Jones said that 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 snow cover, statewide runoff, statewide precipitation, but water supply is a local function and it really depends on the circumstances affecting a particular community or area,” Jones said. “Some areas will likely come out of the drought due to the very wet conditions we’ve had, but it really depends on the circumstances of a water utility’s individual supply sources.”

Jones said groundwater, the state’s groundwater system, remains severely depleted and could take years to replenish. Lake Mead and Lake Powell will similarly need more than one rainy season to replenish, she said, noting that the Colorado River basin drought began in 2000.

MWD’s Hagekhalil said the fragility of the system means every drop is valuable, and the likelihood of an eventual return to drought in California is all the more reason to save while the water and snow are 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 need to change.”

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2023-02-06/what-the-colorado-river-crisis-means-for-southern-california What the Colorado River crisis means for Southern California

Alley Einstein

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