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As the state’s capital is poised to break a 141-year record for lack of rain, California’s top water bosses are trying to explain why this year has been so bad and calling on residents to redouble conservation efforts.
By many measures, this year’s drought has etched itself into the record books and is poised to get significantly worse if rainfall and snowpack levels don’t rebound over the next several months.
The state’s largest reservoirs are at historic lows, partially the result of record-low snowpacks, and thousands of water rights holders have been ordered to stop drawing from the Russian River and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watersheds.
Also, Friday marked the 195th day since rain last fell on Sacramento, breaking a record set in 1880, according to the National Weather Service.
“As we all know, drought is part of California’s natural environment but it is now supercharged by extreme climate change,” California’s Secretary for Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot said during a video-conference media briefing last week.
The state has only managed to reduce overall water consumption by 2 percent, Crowfoot said, even while all but eight of the state’s 58 counties are under a drought emergency, water is being trucked in to communities across Central and Northern California, and farmers are pulling up almond orchards and vineyards.
“We’re asking everybody across the state to reduce water usage by 15 percent,” he said, noting that Gov. Gavin Newsom called for a voluntary statewide 15 percent water use reduction in June.
Drought and heat converge
This year’s drought conditions are particularly bad because the lack of rain and snow was exacerbated by extremely high ambient temperatures, which led to dry soil conditions that sucked up precipitation.
“So, while technically 1976 and 1977 was drier than 2020-21, what happened in our reservoirs, rivers and streams was actually much lower (inflows of water),” said California Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth.
State Water Resources Control Board Chair Joaquin Esquivel said that while the drought is known to increase concentrations of pollutants in drinking water supplies, it appears that water systems have been able to remove contaminants before water reaches homes and businesses, although the cost to do so increases as drought conditions worsen.
Esquivel also said that the Water Board earmarked $1 billion to help shore up water systems in the wake of pandemic rules disallowing water shutoffs for delinquent bills.
That money will come from the $2.7 billion the Water Board will receive from the new state budget’s $5.2 billion drought response package, signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last month.
While the current outlook appears grim, the speakers pointed out that the state seems to be in a better position to endure this drought for several reasons, including the fact that since 2016, 400 of the state’s larger urban water systems have been required to develop long-term drought contingency plans and the state appears to have reached an overall 16 percent water use reduction since then.
If residents don’t pitch in to further reduce consumption, however, some type of mandatory water restrictions could be implemented in the future.