California reservoirs: The state’s two largest are already at ‘extremely low levels’ and the dry season is just beginning

Years of low rainfall and low snowpack and more intense heat waves have directly fueled the state’s multi-year and relentless drought conditions, rapidly draining reservoirs across the state. And according to this week’s report from the US Drought Monitor, both major reservoirs are at “extremely low levels” at the time of year when they are expected to be highest.
This week, Lake Shasta is only at 40% of its full capacity, the lowest on record in early May since records began in 1977. Meanwhile, further south, Lake Oroville is at 55% capacity, which is 70% of where it should be at around this time on average.
Lake Shasta is the state’s largest reservoir and the cornerstone of California’s Central Valley project, a complex water system comprised of 19 dams and reservoirs as well as more than 500 miles of canals, stretching from Redding north, all the way south to the drought-stricken landscapes of Bakersfield.

Shasta Lake water levels are now less than half the historical average. According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, only agricultural customers who are primary water rights holders and certain irrigation districts in the eastern San Joaquin Valley will receive water deliveries from the Central Project. Valley this year.

“We anticipate that in the Sacramento Valley alone, more than 350,000 acres of farmland will go fallow,” Mary Lee Knecht, public affairs manager for the Bureau’s California-Great Basin region, told CNN. For perspective, it’s a bigger area than Los Angeles. “The towns and villages that receive [Central Valley Project] water supplies, including Silicon Valley communities, have been reduced to health and safety needs alone.”

Falling supply is at stake, said Jessica Gable of Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit advocacy group focused on food and water security as well as climate change. The impending summer heat and water shortages, she said, will hit California’s most vulnerable populations the hardest, especially those in farming communities.

“Communities across California are going to suffer this year during the drought, and it’s just a matter of how much they are still suffering,” Gable told CNN. “It’s usually the most vulnerable communities that are going to suffer the most, so usually the Central Valley comes to mind because it’s an already arid part of the state with most of the state’s agriculture and most of the state’s energy development, which are both water-intensive industries”.

‘Only 5%’ of water to supply

Lake Oroville is the largest reservoir in California’s State Water Project system, which is separate from the Central Valley Project, operated by the California Department of Water Resources (DWR). It provides water to 27 million Californians and 750,000 acres of farmland.

Last year, Oroville suffered a major blow after water levels plunged to just 24% of full capacity, forcing a crucial California hydroelectric plant to close for the first time since it opened in 1967. The level The lake’s water was well below the boat ramps, and exposed inlet pipes that usually sent water to feed the dam.

Although heavy storms late in 2021 eased the lake’s record levels, resuming power plant operations, state water officials are wary of another dire situation as drought escalates. worse this summer.

“The fact that this facility closed last August; it has never happened before, and the prospects of it happening again are very real,” California Governor Gavin Newsom said at a press conference. in April during a visit to the Oroville dam, noting the climate. The crisis is changing the way water is delivered in the region.

Low reservoir levels in Oroville are causing water agencies that rely on the state project to “receive only 5% of their requested supplies in 2022,” said Ryan Endean, according to the DWR. DWR spokesperson, to CNN. “These water agencies are being urged to enact mandatory water use restrictions to stretch their available supplies through the summer and fall.”

The Bureau of Reclamation and DWR, along with federal and state agencies, are also taking unprecedented action to protect endangered winter chinook salmon from the third straight year of drought. Rehabilitation officials are in the process of securing temporary cooling units to chill water in one of their hatcheries.

Shasta Lake, California's largest water reservoir, is the primary source for collecting and distributing large amounts of water through the Central Valley and into the Sacramento River Delta, where the Shasta Water Project begins. the State of California (aka California Aqueduct), moving water to Southern California and all areas in between.

Both reservoirs are a vital part of the state’s larger hydraulic system, interconnected by canals and rivers. So even though the smaller reservoirs have been replenished by winter precipitation, falling water levels in Shasta and Oroville could still affect and drain the rest of the water system.

The water level at Folsom Lake, for example, reached nearly 450 feet above sea level this week, or 108% of its historic average for this time of year. But with low water levels in Shasta and Oroville, annual water discharges from Folsom Lake this summer may need to be higher than normal to compensate for significant shortages from other reservoirs.

California relies on winter storms and precipitation to accumulate snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, which then gradually melts in the spring and replenishes the reservoirs.

Faced with back-to-back dry years and record heat waves pushing the drought into historic territory, California got a taste of the rain it was looking for in October, when the first big storm of the season pushed ashore. . Then in late December, more than 17 feet of snow fell in the Sierra Nevada, which researchers said was enough to break decades-old records.
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But precipitation stalled in January, and the water content of the state’s snowpack this year was just 4% of normal at the end of winter.
Further down the state of Southern California, water district officials announced unprecedented water restrictions last week, requiring businesses and residents in parts of Los Angeles, Ventura and San Bernardino counties to reduce outdoor watering to one day per week beginning June 1.

Gable said as California is entering a much warmer and drier future than anyone has experienced before, officials and residents must rethink how water is managed at all levels or the state will continue to not be prepared.

“Water is supposed to be a human right,” Gable said. “But we don’t think that, and I think until that changes, unfortunately, water scarcity will continue to be a symptom of the worsening climate crisis.”


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