SACRAMENTO, Calif. — As the Western United States battles a drought that is quickly depleting reservoirs used for agriculture, drinking water, and fish habitat, California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday encouraged residents and businesses in the nation’s most populous state to voluntarily decrease their water consumption by 15%.
Although water conservation is voluntary, it highlights the rising problems of a drought that is expected to intensify throughout the summer and fall and is linked to more severe wildfires and heatwaves. Temperatures in parts of the region are rising again this week as firefighters battle several wildfires in Northern California and other states, but they are less extreme than the record heatwave that hit the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia in late June and may have killed hundreds of people.
California’s most significant reservoirs are already dangerously low, and will very certainly hit new lows later this year. Lake Oroville in Northern California is at 30 percent capacity, and state officials are concerned that water levels may drop to the point that a hydropower facility would have to shut down later this year. Lake Mendocino, which is located along the Russian River, is expected to dry up later this year, according to authorities.
“What’s occurring on the West Coast of the United States is jaw-dropping,” Newsom said during a press conference at Lopez Lake, a reservoir in San Luis Obispo County built by a 34 percent-capacity dam on the Arroyo Grande Creek.
A catastrophic drought linked to climate change has engulfed the United States’ West, just a few years after California declared its previous dry period ended in 2016. The previous drought in California reduced groundwater resources and altered how people used water, with many homeowners and businesses replacing their landscaping with drought-tolerant plants.
California’s urban water use is down 16 percent on average compared to before the previous drought. However, scientists claim that the current drought is already hotter and drier than the last one, hastening the effects on people and the environment.
Because of California’s Mediterranean climate, it does not get much rain or snow until the winter. Snowmelt from the mountains is used to fill the state’s reservoirs in the spring, which provides water for farms, houses, and fish throughout the year.
Officials are confident that water shortages will not occur this year, thanks to a series of large storms in January. However, because the soil was so dry, much of the snow in the mountains seeped into the ground rather than melting into a runoff to fill rivers and reservoirs.
“What we didn’t realize was that we were in the middle of a developing and increasing drought underground,” Karla Nemeth, head of the California Department of Water Resources, explained. “It’s the rapidity with which the combined effects of climate change on soil moisture and ambient temperatures have turned this drought into something quite new. It isn’t any longer a sluggish train wreck.”
Given the state of California’s reservoirs, Newsom’s plea for citizens to consume less water is about preparing for next year, according to Nemeth. The governor, a Democrat, is calling for volunteer conservation initiatives such as taking shorter showers, only using dishwashers when they are full, and watering lawns less frequently.
Newsom’s reaction said to Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, was “too little, too late.” She said her organization and others urged the state to prepare for the drought by the end of 2020. State authorities, she claims, have given Newsom “poor counsel.”
She stated, “They allow too much water out of the system for industrial agriculture users.” “Almonds and other unsustainable crops have wasted our water resources and public trust resources like salmon fisheries.”
Farmers, on the other hand, have complained that their water allotment has been drastically reduced this year. According to Nemeth, the state discharged water from Lake Oroville primarily to meet water quality criteria in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which is created by the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems that flow into the San Francisco Bay.
“We released more than we intended since most of the water was diverted by other water users instead of making it to the delta,” she explained.
Mandatory water restrictions have already been enforced by certain municipal governments. In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown ordered state agencies to cease watering lawns, washing windows in offices, and operating fountains that don’t recycle water earlier this week.
New legislation in Nevada prohibits roughly a third of grass in the Las Vegas region, focusing on decorative turf in locations such as business parks and roadway medians. Single-family houses, parks, and golf courses are exempt from the restriction.
Newsom also added nine additional counties to California’s emergency drought declaration, which now encompasses 50 of the state’s 58 counties and 42% of the population.
The declaration excludes major cities such as Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco. However, Newsom is still urging residents in densely populated regions to decrease their water use because they rely on rivers and reservoirs in drought-stricken areas for a large portion of their supplies.
The proclamation makes counties eligible for a variety of state measures, including the suspension of several environmental rules.
Inyo, Marin, Mono, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, San Mateo, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, and Santa Cruz are the new counties.