The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) announced a zero percent water allocation on Dec. 1. The water agency said that the drought has forced state water regulators to prioritize “health and safety water needs” and that water deliveries are essentially on hold until the state recovers from the ongoing drought conditions in the west.
The annual December state water allocations are the first litmus test for the water year in California. The allocations provide insight on available water storage and what the 29 main state water contractors can expect for water supplies.
DWR provides allocations three to four times during the water year, which runs from September to October, and also conducts a monthly snowpack survey from December or January until the snowpack melts in the spring or early summer.
What’s bad about the December water allocation announcement is that it has never happened before.
DWR has only announced a zero percent allocation of water three times since 1967, but it has never started the water year with no allocations. The zero water allocations were awarded once in 2014 in the middle of the infamous 2012-2016 drought and twice in 1991.
The current mid-December storms, much like the October “bomb cyclone” in Northern California, are replenishing mountain snowpacks, groundwater, and rivers and streams. But the couple of inches of rain and a few feet of snow will need to remain consistent for much of the 2021-2022 winter to lift the west coast out of drought conditions.
State reservoir conditions are poor headed into the new year. Oroville and Shasta reservoirs are at 30 percent and 25 percent of capacity, respectively. The historical average of the two largest reservoirs in the state at this time is near or above 50 percent.
The state is on a long-term march toward making the most out of its unpredictable winters. The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act is slowly coming into effect as the 2014 law aims to stop the over drafting of groundwater and land subsidence in the central San Joaquin Valley.
The meager ten percent of water used by state residents has slowly been cut down since the last drought. Rebates for drought-friendly lawns, scheduled watering days, and fining and reporting neighbors for running sprinklers are likely to return, as well as the threat of actual limits on water use.
The State Water Resources Control Board and other state regulators are putting their weight behind environmental flows and maintaining the Delta at the ire of agriculture.
I could go on and on about what the state is doing to try and stretch its water supplies. It is more telling what the state isn’t doing to manage water resources: building more reservoirs for water storage.
Even under California’s “anti-dam” dogma, the state still has options to construct off-storage reservoirs to increase water storage capacity. In the past I have written about the state’s monolithic process for approving and constructing reservoirs.
There are millions of acre-feet of water waiting to be built with proceeds from a 2014 water bond. The money wasn’t allocated to specific projects until 2018 and the earliest completion date for those projects is slated for early 2030.
Read any book about the Roman Empire and you’ll come across accounts of Roman infrastructure. Roads, uniform construction of military camps, and of course, aqueducts. One aqueduct built in 19 B.C., the Aqua Virgo, still supplies water to the Trevi Fountain, among other famous tourist attractions in the Eternal City.
Who knows: the way California moves on upgrading and side-tracking water infrastructure, it might still rely on ancient canals and aqueducts in the future.
Evan Harris is the media relations and outreach manager at PRI.