A disappointingly dry February is fanning fears of another severe drought in California. It was just a little more than 5 years ago when the swimming pool & hot tub industry had to undertake a major public relations and regulatory effort to push back against state and local government efforts to restrict the use of public water to fill new swimming pools and, in some cases, prevent public water from being used to keep swimming pools full. Now, in many places, including parts of the Bay Area, water users are already being asked to cut back.
The state’s monthly snow survey indicated only about 60% of average snowpack for this point in the year, the latest indication that water supplies are tightening. With the end of the stormy season approaching, forecasters don’t expect much more buildup of snow, a key component of the statewide supply that provides up to a third of California’s water.
The impact is registering. Growers in the Central Valley are having to make decisions about which crops to prioritize, and which to sacrifice, should the water situation see no improvement. Urban water agencies, meanwhile, are asking customers to think twice about long showers and outdoor watering. The calls for austerity will feel familiar to many Californians who faced mandatory water restrictions during the 2012-2016 drought.
“This spring we’re going to have a robust conservation messaging program,” said Valerie Pryor, general manager of the Zone 7 Water Agency, which supplies water to more than 260,000 people in Livermore, Pleasanton, and Dublin. “We’re pretty confident that if we explain to them the need, they will voluntarily conserve.”
The Marin Municipal Water District and the city of Healdsburg are among suppliers that have already begun asking customers to curb their water use. Others are considering doing the same. Each of the thousands of water agencies across the state has its own portfolio of water sources and its own level of vulnerability.
A series of storms in late January offered hope that California’s winter, when the state gets most of its precipitation, wouldn’t be a bust. However, February saw a return to the dry weather experienced earlier in the season.
San Francisco measured just 1.7 inches of rain last month, 38% of average, while Los Angeles recorded no rainfall, according to the private Golden Gate Weather Services. More importantly, the northern Sierra’s 8-Station Index, which tracks rain in the region where California gets the bulk of its water, measured only 45% of average precipitation.
While March and April could still bring rain, the heart of the wet season is over. Much of the state is now poised to have a top-10 dry year. San Francisco’s rain season currently stands as its seventh driest dating back to the Gold Rush.
The snowpack, often called a “frozen reservoir,” is vital to California because it melts after the storm season is over, providing additional flow into rivers and lakes.
Snow levels, however, have been in decline in recent decades because of warmer temperatures that have come with climate change.
“This is now a second dry year, and we always think about drought impacts increasing with duration,” said Jeanine Jones, interstate resources manager for the state Department of Water Resources, which conducts the snow survey. “The good news is that California has a robust system of water infrastructure, and that mitigates the effects of one or two water years for most water users.”
Still, the state’s biggest reservoirs aren’t in great shape. Lake Shasta, the largest, had 68% of the water it typically holds this time of year while Lake Oroville, the second largest, had 55%.
The State Water Project, which moves reservoir water to cities and farms through aqueducts and canals, estimates that its customers will receive only 10% of their requested water this year.
Agencies dependent on the project, including the East Bay’s Zone 7 and the Santa Clara Valley Water District, will have to turn to groundwater or purchase supplies from others, in addition to conserving.
The Central Valley Project, a parallel waterworks run by the federal government with service tilted toward farmers, announced last week that many of its customers would get just 5% of their requested supply.
The U.S. Drought Monitor, a federal index of nationwide drought conditions, estimates that 85% of California is in some state of drought.
Thirty percent is in “extreme” or “exceptional” drought, the two most severe classifications.
Photo credit: Clean & Clear Pools, Danville, California