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

California faces statewide water restrictions as drought deepens

Water agencies that serve 27 million residents won’t get any water they’ve requested from the state heading into 2022 except to meet health and safety needs.
A kayaker fishes in Lake Oroville on Aug. 22 as water levels remain low because of continuing drought conditions in Oroville, Calif.
A kayaker fishes in Lake Oroville on Aug. 22 as water levels remain low because of continuing drought conditions in Oroville, Calif.Ethan Swope / AP file

LOS ANGELES — California water officials warn the state could be headed toward another round of mandatory water restrictions as some communities prepare to receive no water allocations, except in cases of emergency, from the State Water Project, a complex system of canals, reservoirs and dams that provide water to 27 million people.

It’s the earliest date on which the Department of Water Resources has issued a 0 percent water allocation, a milestone that reflects the dire conditions in California as drought continues to grip the nation’s most populous state and reservoirs sit at historically low levels.

"Despite a wet start to the water year, conditions have dried out since that first storm and we are still planning for a below-average water year," Karla Nemeth, director of the Department of Water Resources, said in a statement. "That means we need to prepare now for a dry winter and severe drought conditions to continue through 2022."

"If conditions continue to be this dry, we will see mandatory cutbacks," she added in a news conference Wednesday.

In 2015, then-Gov. Jerry Brown ordered California's first statewide mandatory restrictions, saying at the time that "historic drought demands unprecedented action."

Those conservation efforts, which included mandating a 25 percent reduction in water use enforceable by fines, ushered in a new era of drought-resistant landscaping, shorter showers and cutting back on water-guzzling appliances.

But as the drought eased, so did California's mandatory restrictions. Now, the Department of Water Resources indicated the state could see a return to some of those measures early next year.

“It is going to take a multipronged approach to successfully respond to these unprecedented drought conditions,” Nemeth said.

The State Water Project supplies water to 29 districts across California, each with a maximum amount they can request every year. The allocations, which are adjusted in early winter and spring depending on how much snow and rainfall the state receives, represent how much the state can give based on available supplies.

Last year, the state’s second-driest on record, allocations decreased from 10 percent in December to 5 percent by March. The only other time since 1996 that districts have been denied allocations was in January 2014 during the last major drought.

Parts of Southern California, including northern Los Angeles and Ventura counties and the Inland Empire, are among communities that will receive some water for health and safety reasons, according to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the state’s largest customer that supplies water to about 19 million people.

About a third of its supply comes from the state, with the rest coming from the Colorado River and elsewhere. It declared a drought emergency in November and mandated that people conserve water. Some of its member agencies rely almost exclusively on state water supplies.

"The conditions on the State Water Project are unlike anything we’ve ever seen before," Adel Hagekhalil, the agency's general manager, said in a statement. "While we certainly hope they improve, we must be prepared for the reality that the state project may not have any water to allocate in 2022."

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

Conditions have become so dry in California that even a fall 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.

A study released in October found that the snowpack could largely disappear in 25 years if global warming continues unchecked. Previous studies have shown that increasing temperatures from human-caused climate change are shrinking snowpacks around the world and altering precipitation patterns.