California ends some water limits after storms ease drought

DUNNIGAN, Calif. — California Governor Gavin Newsom ended some of the state’s water restrictions on Friday as a winter of relentless rain and snow replenished the state’s reservoirs and eased fears of a shortage after three years of severe drought.

Most of California is no longer under drought, according to an update from the US Drought Monitor on Thursday. But water scarcity issues remain in parts of the state, including the Klamath River basin along the California-Oregon border and in Southern California, which depends on the river system. Colorado struggling to help supply millions.

“Have we come out of a drought? Mostly — but not completely,” Newsom said Friday from a farm northwest of Sacramento that flooded its fields to help replenish groundwater.

Newsom on Friday stopped asking people to voluntarily reduce their water use by 15%, a request he first made nearly two years ago while standing by a lake Lopez almost dry in the state’s central coast region – a lake that today is so full from recent storms, it’s almost overflowing. Californians never answered Newsom’s call for this level of conservation – in January, cumulative savings were just 6.2%.

The governor also said he would relax rules requiring local water agencies to impose restrictions on customers. This ordinance will impact people in different ways depending on where they live. For most people, this means they won’t be limited to watering their lawn only on certain days of the week or at certain times of the day. Other restrictions remain in place, including a ban on watering decorative grass for businesses.

Newsom could ease those restrictions in part because state officials said California’s reservoirs are now so full that cities will get more than double the amount of drinking water this year compared to a previous allocation announced on last month. Water districts that serve 27 million people will get at least 75% of the water they have requested from the state. Last year they got just 5% as California had three of the driest years since modern record keeping began in 1896.

“I know it’s disappointing to some because it would be nice for a governor to say the drought is over,” Newsom said.

California and the western United States have been experiencing a prolonged drought for about two decades, a period of abnormal drought punctuated by occasional intense stormy seasons.

“As a governor of a large, diverse state that has very diverse water supplies and water demands, it’s really hard for him to say a drought has started or a drought is over. Everyone will interpret that a little differently,” said Jay Lund, vice director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis.

Lund said the drought is over in many ways in California, including urban water supplies and reservoirs. But it’s not over for the state’s fragile ecosystems and underground aquifers that have been depleted in recent years of drought.

“We may never fully recover them,” he said.

Three years of little rain or snow in California had depleted reservoirs to the point that the state could no longer generate electricity from hydroelectric plants. It dried up wells in rural areas and state officials had to truck water supplies to some communities. And it has reduced the flow of major rivers and streams in the state, killing endangered species of fish and other species.

But since December, no less than 12 powerful storms have hit California, carrying so much rain and snow that meteorologists call them “atmospheric rivers”. Those storms flooded homes, shut down ski resorts and trapped people in mountain communities for days without power, prompting declarations of emergency from President Joe Biden.

Amid all this carnage, water has been steadily pouring into state reservoirs. Of California’s 17 major reservoirs, 12 are at or above their historical averages for this time of year.

And more water is coming. Statewide, the amount of snowpack in the mountains is already 223 percent above the average for April 1, when the snowpack is typically at its peak. Much of this snow will melt in the coming months, flowing into reservoirs and posing more flood threats downstream.

“This is great news. These storms have brought record amounts of water to our state in the form of rain and snow, which means our water supply is in much better shape than it was in the fall,” said Wade Crowfoot, secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency.

California does not have enough room in its reservoirs to store all the water from these storms. In fact, some reservoirs need to release water to make way for more storms coming next week and spring snowmelt. This is why the Newsom administration allowed farmers to take water from rivers and flood some of their fields, with the water seeping underground to fill up the groundwater basins.

Newsom made his drought announcement at one such project, a farm in the community of Dunnigan, off Interstate 5 about 37 miles (60 kilometers) northwest of Sacramento. State officials hope projects like these will replenish some of the groundwater that was pumped out during the drought.

ABC News

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