Analysis News & Analysis

California Mandates Water Restrictions as Drought Worsens

Lake Shasta, a California reservoir, sits at a concerning 38% capacity. Photo: Gary Reed/CalMatters

As California’s drought worsens, Governor Gavin Newsom has unveiled a series of water conservation mandates. Despite heavy rains in the winter and a minor storm just days ago, almost all of California is in “severe” or “extreme” drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, with January and February the “driest January and February on record.” As a result, California has reduced allocations from the State Water Project, the statewide aqueduct, from 15% of requested water to a minuscule 5% of requested water. 

Water experts have long  urged Newsom to enact statewide mandates, as was last done in 2015, when Governor Brown ordered a 25% reduction in water consumption, but Nesom has largely taken a voluntary approach to water conservation over the course of the ongoing three year drought, with mixed results. 

Last July, Newsom requested Californians reduce their water consumption by 15%, but Californians have since met only half that goal, making an insufficient 6.8% reduction. This January, California’s water board banned a limited number of wasteful water use practices in January, like hosing down sidewalks and watering landscaping within 48 hours of it having rained, but water use otherwise continued unabated. 

Newsom’s latest order, however, orders urban water suppliers to take significantly more aggressive action to reduce water consumption. All “urban” water suppliers (nearly all of those not serving agricultural districts) must activate “Level 2” of their water supply contingency plans. Under California law, local water agencies are required to design six levels of water conservation plans; “Level 2” plans are for use in water shortages of 10 to 20 percent. While not laying out explicit measures water suppliers must take, Newsom’s executive order requiring the activation of water contingency plans is nothing short of a water savings mandate. 

Newsom’s order hasn’t even spared agriculture, which is responsible for at least 80% of human water use in California. Farmers overwhelmingly rely on groundwater wells during periods of drought, and over the last several droughts, excessive pumping has led to the near-exhaustion of the underground aquifers that serve as California’s water supply of last resort; aquifer water represents of California’s water supply during non-drought years, but doubles to during droughts. 

To protect California’s remaining groundwater, and to the detriment of farmers, Newsom’s executive order bans the drilling of new wells if they “interfere” with existing wells, could cause land subsistence that can damage local infrastructure, or are  “inconsistent” with any groundwater management program established under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

With California exiting its rainy season and entering the summer and fall dry season, water restrictions are likely to increase as supply shortfalls continue to deepen.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.