California is suffering from severe drought again. This winter produced water conditions far below normal for the second year in a row, the eighth year in the last 10, the 14th year in the last 20. Los Angeles has had 39% of normal precipitation; San Diego, only 30%; San Francisco, 37%; Sacramento, less than 40%.
The snowpack is meager — less than half of normal — and falling fast as spring temperatures warm up. The state’s largest reservoirs are hovering around 50% to 60% of their normal capacity, or less, for this time of year, almost exactly where they were when Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency in January 2014.
The California Department of Water Resources announced that it expected to deliver only 5% of requested supplies to municipal and agricultural users on the State Water Project, down from the initial allocation of 10% announced in December. Allocations of water from the federal Central Valley Project are just as low. Major reservoirs on the Colorado River have fallen to critically low levels.
And all of this is on top of last year’s severe dry weather that contributed to a brutal fire season, with more than 4.2 million acres burned and at least $10 billion in property destroyed. These challenges are a result of California’s vulnerability to natural extremes of weather and the growing consequences of human-caused climate change.
But so far in 2021 our officials have been strangely silent.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has not declared a statewide drought emergency, and his website says nothing about drought. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which sells water to 26 agencies serving over 18 million people, has a small note on its webpage saying customers can keep doing what they’ve been doing, rather than exhorting them to save water and providing information about how to do so. There is nothing warning of the drought on websites of other major water providers, including the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the East Bay Municipal Utility District or the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.
Longtime California residents understand drought. The state has increasingly suffered severe droughts in the last few decades because of the effects of climate change. When asked to take action, Californians step up. During the last severe drought, Gov. Brown asked urban residents to cut their water use by 20% and then, as the drought worsened, by 25%.
And we did, for the most part, as information was provided by water agencies and the media on how to save water; rebates were offered for more efficient toilets, showerheads and appliances; and programs to eliminate lawns and cut outdoor watering were rolled out. Most water agencies reported declines in water use in line with the emergency request.
The good news is that, while water use has risen slightly since that drought, many of the savings achieved have persisted, both because of permanent removal of lawns and inefficient appliances and…