New Melones reservoir, east of Stockton. This image was taken in mid-2015 when the reservoir level was at 29% of historical average. Currently it is still only at 43%. Credit: Ben Amstutz, Flickr, Creative Commons License.

Californians Need to Keep Up the Conservation

By Tracy Quinn, Policy Analyst, Natural Resources Defense Council

Later today, the State Water Resources Control Board will hold a workshop to discuss relaxing or eliminating the crucial, mandatory water use reductions implemented in 2015. These restrictions have saved 1.2 million acre-feet of water (or about the twice the amount of water used by the City of Los Angeles in 2015).

In February, the State Water Board extended the emergency water conservation regulations, acknowledging that “due to the severity of the water deficits over the past four years, many of California’s reservoirs and groundwater basins remain depleted, and the need for continued water conservation persists.” The Board also noted that staff should report back in April once more complete water supply information is available.

That information is now available, and shows that while the state’s precipitation is slightly above normal in Northern California (SoCal hasn’t quite fared as well) our snowpack levels are still below average.

As of April 1, which marks the end of the traditional “wet season,” the state’s snowpack was at only 87% of the historical average. For a return to non-emergency conditions in California, we would have needed at least twice the rain and snowpack we received this winter.

To make matters worse, the National Oceanic and Administrative Agency (NOAA) reports there is a 70% chance of La Niña conditions this fall and winter. In California, La Niña can mean a drier-than-normal winter and for California’s next rainy season, all seven components of the latest North American Multi-Model Ensemble (NMME) show a dry start.

NRDC and other environmental stakeholders have stated throughout the emergency regulation process that water reduction targets should reflect current water supply conditions while taking into consideration the likelihood of a continued dry climate. Based on the current conditions described above, now is clearly not the time to eliminate mandatory water use reductions in California for the vast majority of water suppliers … most certainly not for any water supplier that is located within or diverts water from a Delta tributary area or receives water from the Colorado River. Many Californians rely on these systems — so for better or for worse, whether you look outside your window to see an overflowing reservoir or a thirsty, sprawling metropolis, we’re all in this together.

Luckily, this is something most Californians understand. In a recent field poll, most voters describe the state’s drought as extremely serious and 86% of participants said that they planned to continue saving water even after the drought ends. This is good news. Our state’s water management challenges will only become more intense and severe over time with climate change and continued population and economic growth. We need to lock in and build upon the savings we have achieved during this epic and unprecedented drought in order to be resilient in the face of future water scarcity.

This concept is not only espoused by enviros, in fact the number one “action” in the Governor’s California Water Action Plan is to “make conservation a way of life.”

Water conservation and efficiency improvements are the cheapest, fastest, least environmentally damaging response to these challenges. In order to accomplish the goals of the California Water Action Plan, we cannot allow ourselves and the public to experience the short-term memory that often follows a multi-year drought; instead we must adopt a suite of strong long-term conservation measures — the most effective way to fulfill our ongoing obligation to conserve water resources.