California drought eases as state increases water deliveries to cities, farms

In a major sign that California’s drought conditions are easing after a series of huge storms earlier this month, state water officials on Thursday increased the amount of water that cities and farms will receive this summer from the State Water Project, a series of dams, canals and pumps that provides water to 27 million people from the Bay Area to San Diego.

The increased water deliveries — six times the amount promised on Dec. 1 — are made possible by rapidly filling reservoirs and a huge Sierra Nevada snowpack and likely will mean that many communities will ease or lift summer water restrictions if the wet weather continues through the spring.

“Thanks to the water captured and stored from recent storms, the state is increasing deliveries to local agencies that support two-thirds of Californians — good news for communities and farms in the Bay Area, San Joaquin Valley and Southern California,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom. “We’ll keep pushing to modernize our water infrastructure to take advantage of these winter storms and prepare communities for the climate-driven extremes of wet and dry ahead.”

The State Water Project was approved by voters in 1960 and is a key legacy of former Gov. Pat Brown. It moves billions of gallons of water from Northern California to the south by taking melting snow from the Sierra Nevada and transporting it hundreds of miles from Lake Oroville in Butte County through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to Bay Area communities and all the way to the Los Angeles Basin. In addition to supplying drinking water to two out of three Californians, it also irrigates about 750,000 acres of farmland.

On Thursday, Karla Nemeth, director of the Department of Water Resources, said her agency expects to deliver 30% of requested State Water Project supplies in 2023, up from the initial 5% allocation it announced on Dec. 1.

Nemeth said the amount is likely to increase if wet conditions continue this spring. Thursday’s increase is the largest January allocation announcement since 2017 when the 29 agencies that have contracts were told they would receive 60% of their requested amounts. The rain continued, reservoirs filled, and that year, by April, they received 85%.

When asked if California’s drought, which parched the state for the past three years, was ending, Nemeth said different areas are experiencing different conditions. Reservoirs are 100% full along the coast, in places such as Marin, Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara counties, where storms hit hardest. But there are still depleted groundwater basins in the Central Valley, she noted, and Southern California depends heavily on the Colorado River, which has seen 20 years of relentlessly dry conditions.

In the coming months if rains continue, Newsom is likely to remove some areas from his emergency drought declaration, Nemeth said, based on rainfall amounts and local water supply conditions. But there’s no guarantee the rain will continue. Last December was wet, and almost no rain fell in January, February and March.

“We had an incredible three weeks in California,” Nemeth said. “Ultimately California will either emerge from this drought completely or we will have continued erratic conditions.”

“It’s really too soon to tell,” she added.

Nine atmospheric river storms drenched the state starting in late December, causing flooding and storm damage and killing at least 21 people. The deluges marked the wettest series of storms in five years.

The rainfall totals have been nothing short of amazing.

From Dec. 26 to Jan. 15, 17 inches fell in downtown San Francisco, making it the Bay Area’s wettest three-week period since the Civil War in 1862.

The storms also brought massive amounts of snow. On Thursday, the Sierra Nevada snowpack, the source of nearly one-third of California’s water supply, was 216% of its historical average.

Most reservoirs across California are at or near historical averages. The largest, Shasta Lake, near Redding, was 55% full Thursday — 87% of its historical average for that date. The second-largest, Lake Oroville, was 63% full — or 110% of its historical level. Both were less than a third full last month.

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Among the agencies most affected by Thursday’s increased water deliveries are the Santa Clara Valley Water District, in San Jose, which provides drinking water to 2 million South Bay residents and relies on the State Water Project for 20% to 30% of its normal annual supply. Also benefitting: the Alameda County Water District, which serves 360,000 people in Fremont, Newark and Union City; and the Zone 7 Water Agency, which serves Livermore, Pleasanton and Dublin.

“It’s the best news since the drought started 3 years ago,” said Rick Callender, CEO of the Santa Clara Valley Water District.

But Callender said water-supply challenges in Silicon Valley will remain because the district’s largest reservoir, Anderson, near Morgan Hill, was ordered drained two years ago by federal officials for a major earthquake retrofit project that will last until 2031.

Meanwhile, a growing amount of California’s land — including Santa Cruz and Monterey counties and coastal portions of San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura and northern Los Angeles counties — is no longer in drought, according to Thursday’s U.S. Drought Monitor, a weekly report issued by the federal government.

Just 32% of California is in severe drought now, down from 42% last week and 80% a month ago, the report concluded. Most of the rest of the state, including the Bay Area, has been downgraded over the past few weeks to “moderate drought.”

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