IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

19 million people under drought emergency in Southern California

Gov. Gavin Newsom has pleaded with residents to cut their water use by 15 percent, but early indications show Californians conserved just 5 percent.
Image: A cracked lake bed at Nicasio Reservoir during a drought in Nicasio, Calif., on Oct. 13, 2021.
A cracked lake bed at Nicasio Reservoir during a drought in Nicasio, Calif., on Oct. 13. David Paul Morris / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Nearly half of all California residents are under a regional drought emergency as record dry conditions continue to exacerbate a statewide crisis.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a wholesaler to 26 local agencies that together supply some 19 million people with water, declared a state of emergency Tuesday in a resolution that calls for increased conservation efforts.

Last month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom expanded a statewide drought emergency, which authorizes the state water board to ban wasteful water uses, such as using potable water for washing sidewalks and driveways. 

Tuesday's declaration, which also pertains to businesses, supports Newsom's proclamation, activates additional conservation efforts and expands water efficiency programs.

“We need immediate action to preserve and stretch our limited State Water Project supplies,” board Chairwoman Gloria D. Gray said in a statement. “Southern California on average gets about one-third of its water from Northern California via the state project. Next year, we’ll be lucky to get a small fraction of that.”

The declarations come as California struggles with unprecedented dry conditions and an ongoing strain on state water resources. California's last two water years were the driest two-year period on record for precipitation. In August, Lake Oroville — the main reservoir in the State Water Project — reached its lowest point since the 1970s.

In July, Newsom called on residents across the state to cut their water use by 15 percent, but state figures showed residents had reduced use by about 5 percent by August.

The California Department of Water Resources indicated its initial State Water Project allocation next month will be zero, the water district said. If drought conditions continue, the state could provide only enough water "as deemed necessary to protect the health and safety of Californians," according to the water district. This could include reducing water deliveries that would ultimately prevent outdoor watering.

“We’re reaching uncharted territory here and we need all Southern Californians to be part of the solution,” Metropolitan General Manager Adel Hagekhalil said in a statement. “We need everyone to take action to reduce their water use immediately. This drought emergency declaration helps us all move in the same direction.”

Conditions have become so dry in California that even an October deluge in northern parts of the state could not alleviate drought. During normal years, the winter snowpack in the Sierra Nevada supplies about 30 percent of water statewide when the spring melt comes and water runs off to be captured in the state’s system of reservoirs.

On April 1, the date when the snowpack is typically at its deepest and contains the greatest amount of water, the state Department of Water Resources’ system of electronic monitors found it was only 59 percent of average.

Then, in a stunning development, about 80 percent of the predicted runoff never appeared. Soils were so dry and temperatures so warm that the water instead was soaked up or evaporated, and reservoir water storage fell to shocking levels.