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Newsom rolls back California drought restrictions after remarkably wet winter


On the heels of one of the wettest winters on record in California, Governor Gavin Newsom announced Friday that he will lift some of the most severe drought restrictions in the state and dramatically increase water supplies for agencies that serve 27 million people.

Among the rescinded items is Newsom’s call for a voluntary 15% reduction in water use, issued amid dry conditions in July 2021. He declared a statewide drought emergency in October.

The Governor also rescinded a March 2022 order that required urban water providers activate level 2 of their contingency plans for water shortages, indicating a 20% shortage and motivating further conservation action.

Newsom made the announcement at a ranch in the green Dunnigan Hills in Yolo County, north of Sacramento, where rice and almond farmers were celebrating the wet winter and have been able to recharge some groundwater supplies this season for crops. .

But Newsom stopped short of declaring the drought over, saying parts of his emergency drought order remain important as California adjusts to volatile weather patterns and the looming possibility of another long dry spell.

“It is incumbent on us to continue to maintain our vigilance and maintain some provisions of the executive order to allow for quick tracking of groundwater replenishment projects, stormwater capture, and recycling programs here in the state of California,” he said.

Provisions on wasteful use will remain, including bans on watering lawns within 48 hours of rain and the use of hoses without shut-off nozzles. The ban on watering non-functional lawns on commercial and industrial properties has also not changed.

The remarkable change comes after California’s three driest years on record left reservoirs drained and water supplies drastically reduced.

A series of torrential storms earlier this year helped alleviate some of the most extreme drought conditions in the state, filling rivers and reservoirs and generating near-record snowpack in the Sierra Nevada.

State water agencies, which were preparing to receive only 35% of the requested supplies from the State Water Project this year, will now receive 75%, Department of Water Resources officials said. The State Water Project is a vast network of reservoirs, canals, and dams that serves as an important component of California’s water system.

“We’ve been able to do this because of the series of winter storms that have really provided robust flows throughout the system,” said John Yarbrough, DWR Deputy Deputy Director.

With a 35% allocation, the agency would have delivered about 1.4 million acre-feet of water to its 29 member agencies, Yarbrough said. The increase will “more than double that amount” to about 3.1 million acre-feet. An acre-foot is approximately 326,000 gallons.

The allocation could increase further in April, Yarbrough said. However, he and other officials stressed that the governor’s emergency proclamation was being modified, not removed.

“We are modifying it instead of removing it because, first of all, there are parts of the state that continue to experience severe water shortages,” California Secretary of Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot said. That includes the Klamath Basin in far northern California and parts of southern California that depend on the Colorado River, he said.

“We are also upholding but amending the proclamation because there are continuing emergency impacts and drought conditions throughout the state, including … communities and homes that are without potable water coming from their taps,” Crowfoot said.

Still, the change was welcome news after three grueling, completely dry years that wreaked devastation on the lives and businesses of millions of Californians.

In 2022, significant cuts in water deliveries caused irrigated farmland to shrink by 752,000 acres, reducing crop revenues by $1.7 billion and costing approximately 12,000 farm jobs.

The number of dry wells has skyrocketed, particularly in the Central Valley, as farmers continued to dig supplies out of the ground to make up for reduced allocations, often leaving the state’s most vulnerable residents with little water and even fewer resources.

Frank Ferriera draws a handful of fresh water from a large open pipe on his farm in Visalia, California. This year’s wet winter strained farmland and wells.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Urban areas also saw unprecedented water restrictions that led to one- and two-day-a-week outdoor watering limits for 7 million people in Southern California, among other rules.

The region’s large water wholesaler, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, lifted some of its restrictions last week, however local water providers may still have regulations in place.

Newsom administration officials said provisions focused on groundwater supply will also remain in place, including those that allow the state to assist communities with dry wells and respond to emergencies as needed.

The provisions reflect that “we continue to have a groundwater drought, a groundwater deficit,” said Joaquín Esquivel, president of the State Water Resources Control Board.

Despite the surface water surplus, groundwater deficits will not be remedied by a single wet year, he said.

Crowfoot said removing the voluntary 15% reduction is part of a broader goal to move away from numerical targets and focus on a “longer lasting approach” to making conservation a way of life.

“It’s not about getting back to normal anymore, it’s really adjusting to a new normal, and that’s escalating the extremes,” Crowfoot said. He said that he would not declare the end of the drought.

“If we declare the drought over and remove emergency supplies, we would not be able to quickly and effectively provide support where those conditions still exist,” he said, such as providing bottled water supplies to communities whose wells have dried up.

Recent storms exemplified this “weather whiplash” behavior, or swings between extreme wetness and dryness, including deadly snowstorms in the San Bernardino Mountains and devastating flooding in Monterey County and the Central Valley.

Water managers said they are working to increase the state’s capacity to capture and store water and to upgrade infrastructure under the governor’s mandate. Strategy for a Hotter, Drier California, presented last August. Those efforts include recent moves to divert more than 600,000 acre-feet of water from the swollen San Joaquin River to help replenish groundwater basins in the Central Valley.

But state officials also acknowledged that Southern California’s other major source, the Colorado River, remains in desperate condition.

The river is a water lifeline serving some 40 million people, but drought and overuse have left its reservoirs dangerously low, and water managers warn Lake Mead could soon fall below its inlet valve. lower and effectively cut off supplies to the American West.

Federal officials have ordered California and six other states to drastically reduce the use of that river, but so far no agreement has been reached.

Meanwhile, California has received a bounty unlike any in recent memory.

Nearly 65% of the state is no longer in droughtshows the US Drought Monitor. Just three months ago, almost 100% of the state was in some form of drought.

By Friday, snowpack across the state was 227% of normal to date Snow cover in the southern Sierra was 283% of normal, an all-time record.

California’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Shasta and Lake Oroville, were at 78% and 82% capacity, respectively.

Another storm system could dump more rain and snow on the state early next week, forecasters said.

Times staff writer Ian James contributed to this report.

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