With water precious, state faces heat, fires–and drought

Californians just experienced a Fourth of July weekend that graphically demonstrated how weather and climatic conditions can alter holiday activities that many of us traditionally take for granted.

Smoke choked the air as wildfires burned around the state.  A number of fireworks shows were cancelled.  Many lakes and reservoirs that are popular Independence Day destinations were less than half full.

As Golden State residents settle back into their post holiday workweeks, the dry conditions continue.  It’s a predicament brought about by two consecutive dry winters.  Northern California had its driest spring ever this year, while Southern California set low rainfall records last year.  Caught in this parching dry spell during 2007 and 2008, California also faces judicial cutbacks in Delta water exports to save endangered fish.  As a result of climate and court impacts, California water supplies are low.

California is in a drought, the first statewide dry spell since the years 1987 to 1992.  We’ll get through it…as we did in the 1929-1934 drought, and the one from 1975-1977, which was the California’s driest period on record.  

Coping with drought, however, is getting tougher for a variety of reasons, including increased demand.  During the 1929-1934 period, California’s population was less than six million.  By 1990, our ranks had swelled to 29 million.  Today, about 37 million people live in California.  By 2030, that figure is projected to top 50 million.

Getting back to the situation at hand, a number of efforts are underway to cope with the problem.  On June 4, Governor Schwarzenegger officially declared that the state is suffering drought conditions and called for a 20 percent reduction in water use statewide.  He urged local agencies to bolster conservation programs and to work with federal and state authorities to help farmers now suffering huge financial losses.

The Governor’s executive order directed the Department of Water Resources (DWR) to:
•    Facilitate water transfers to respond to emergency shortages across the state.
•    Work with local water districts and agencies to improve local coordination.
•    Help local water districts and agencies improve water efficiency and conservation.
•    Coordinate with other state and federal agencies and departments to assist water suppliers, identify risks to water supply and help farmers suffering losses.
•    Expedite existing grant programs to help local water districts and agencies conserve.

DWR is helping drought-stricken Central Valley farmers this summer by transferring up to 50,000 acre feet of groundwater through the State Water Project (SWP).  This water comes from wells in the Westlands Water District and will be moved to other parts of the Westlands service area that do not have groundwater access.

Additionally, DWR is lending 37,500 acre feet of water to Central Valley Project (CVP) contractors out of the San Luis Reservoir. An additional 25,000 acre feet is being made available by Metropolitan Water District of Southern California for the benefit of both CVP and SWP contractors.  

Furthermore, DWR is expediting $12 million in grants to water agencies and non-profit organizations and working with locals on an aggressive water conservation and outreach campaign.

Conservation is a very important piece of the water supply puzzle and it’s a prominent part of the Governor’s $11.9 billion water bond for water management investments that will address population growth, climate change, water supply reliability and environmental needs.

But here’s the plain truth: conservation will not help much in the sixth or seventh year of a statewide drought.  To mitigate dry periods, California needs more surface storage to capture excess water provided in wet years.

The last major state-built surface storage projects were completed 34 years ago and are not adequate to serve today’s population.  What’s more, as previously indicated, California reservoirs are low.  If we have no improvement next rainy season, there’ll be less reservoir water than during the worst of the 1976-77 drought.

Incidentally, to help local agencies and communities prepare for the possibility of another dry year and possible water supply interruptions, DWR has published an updated version of the Urban Drought Guidebook.  The guidebook reflects a wide array of water supply and demand approaches.  As water suppliers review and update their Water Shortage Contingency Plans, we hope the new information and examples of exceptional efforts by water suppliers throughout California and the United States will be useful.

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