Despite heavy rain and snow, California braces for another dry year

An onslaught of rain and snow has pulled most of California out of exceptional drought, but experts warn that the state’s dry spell is far from over. Officials issued emergency water regulations this week — which won’t affect agricultural operations — even as the northern part of the state braced for possible flooding from winter storms.

“Uh, this is California,” said Jay Lund, co-director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis. “Every year at this time, you just have to be prepared.”

After one of its driest years on record, California’s 2022 is off to a damp and hopeful start. The Sierra Nevadas are buried under nearly 18 feet of snow, and the water level in Lake Oroville, one of the state’s largest reservoirs, has risen 89 feet in the past few months. But most of the state is still considered to be in severe drought. Reservoirs, while improving, are still low, and depleted groundwater supplies are recovering more slowly than water experts like Lund would like. Meanwhile, climatologists are anticipating that a La Niña weather system in the Pacific could result in a drier than average spring in California.

“This year is not going to be as bad,” said Lund, but “there’s still a fair chance that the drought will continue for a third year.” He added that we won’t know for sure until the state’s rainy season ends in March or April.

The state’s new water restrictions, unanimously approved by the Water Resources Control Board, focus on reducing water waste in urban areas. No more washing cars without a shutoff nozzle, overwatering lawns after it rains, or cleaning streets with drinking water. In a draft of its emergency regulations, the board noted that many California communities devote more than 50 percent of their daily water usage to lawns and landscaping, and that voluntary conservation efforts have not been enough. Residents face fines of up to $500 for violating the new rules, which take effect later this month, though enforcement will be left to the discretion of local authorities.

California enacted similar restrictions during its last drought, in 2015.

Agriculture is not covered by the new rules, even though California’s farms use a whopping 80 percent of the water allotted for human use and many agribusinesses have been overpumping groundwater for years.

Critics of the ag exemption say it undercuts the impact of the new rules. “We continue to warn that without accompanying regulations on agricultural overpumping, the gains made by urban water regulation will be minuscule at best,” Nataly Escobedo Garcia, a policy coordinator at the nonprofit Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, told members of the state water board earlier this week.

Lund agreed that the rules are “not going to affect a lot of water,” but said that’s not their primary goal. “The purpose of it, I think, is mostly to keep drought awareness up in case we need it,” he said. “You don’t want to surprise people ever, right? And you certainly don’t want to surprise them with droughts and [water] cutbacks.”

And while the rules aren’t accompanied by agricultural restrictions, Lund noted that many California farmers are already facing cuts. In December, the State Water Project announced that it won’t be distributing any water this year. “California’s agriculture is not going to get all the water that they would like,” said Lund, “and that’s probably a permanent condition statewide.”

As California enters its third year of drought, the crisis has already taken a brutal toll on the environment. Almost all of the state’s winter-run Chinook salmon fry died in their rivers last summer, which conservationists attribute to the unusually shallow waters and high temperatures. They also say the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation bears some responsibility for the die-off, by shipping hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water from those rivers last spring to farmers with senior water rights. Winter-run Chinook salmon are endangered, and conservationists say the die-off poses an existential threat to the species.