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California Tightens Drought Rules as Water Supply Dwindles to One Year

California institutes tighter drought restrictions as NASA scientist predicts there's one year of water left.
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Faced with a fourth year of drought, California officials on March 17 adopted emergency measures in an attempt to keep what is left of the state’s water supply intact.

A NASA scientist has declared that the state only has one year of water left.

“As our ‘wet’ season draws to a close, it is clear that the paltry rain and snowfall have done almost nothing to alleviate epic drought conditions,” wrote Jay Famiglietti, the senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech and a professor of Earth system science at UC Irvine, in a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. “January was the driest in California since record-keeping began in 1895. Groundwater and snowpack levels are at all-time lows. We're not just up a creek without a paddle in California, we're losing the creek too.”

The State Water Resources Control Board tightened water-use restrictions and extended those that were implemented last year. California residents and business owners may not wash down sidewalks and driveways; water outdoor landscapes in a way that causes runoff; wash cars with a hose that does not have a shutoff nozzle; operate fountains that are not fed by a recirculating system, and may not irrigate turf or ornamental landscapes while it’s raining and for 48 hours afterward.

But more regulations are coming, a state official said.

“We are experiencing the lowest snowpack and the driest January in recorded history, and communities around the state are already suffering severely from the prior three years of drought,” said State Water Board Chair Felicia Marcus in a statement. “If the drought continues through next winter and we do not conserve more—the consequences could be even more catastrophic than they already are. Today’s action is just a tune-up and a reminder to act, and we will consider more significant actions in the weeks to come.”

Famiglietti implied that these measures don’t go far enough, soon enough.

“Right now the state has only about one year of water supply left in its reservoirs, and our strategic backup supply, groundwater, is rapidly disappearing,” he wrote in the March 13 piece. “California has no contingency plan for a persistent drought like this one (let alone a 20-plus-year mega-drought), except, apparently, staying in emergency mode and praying for rain.”

He called for immediate steps to be taken, including mandatory water rationing for everyone (rather than waiting till summer as the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is considering); accelerate implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014, which mandates the creation of regional groundwater sustainability agencies within the next two years. By the time the agencies are formed and have implemented plans, “there may be no groundwater left to sustain,” he wrote.

In addition, he wrote, a state task force must be convened immediately to start planning long-term water management strategies, rather than the piecemeal approach of smaller agencies cropping up solely in response to the drought.

“Today, not tomorrow, is the time to begin,” he wrote, warning that truly dealing with long-term water scarcity will “require major changes in policy and infrastructure” and needs to involve the public, as well.

Tribes are already grappling with water issues as the result of the drought, with some even declaring states of emergency.

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The severity of the drought may or may not be due to climate change and warming temperatures, though they certainly play a role, scientists said in a study released in December. Water temperature patterns in the Pacific Ocean were the culprits, the researchers said, and those would occur naturally. However, another study has warned to be prepared for megadroughts of 10 or 20 years.

Either way, the Sierra Nevada snowpack is at its lowest ever measured, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) said on March 11. And melting snowpack is a key component of water supply for California.

"Nearly a third of our [Snow Telemetry (SNOTEL)] sites in the Cascades and Sierra Nevada are reporting the lowest snowpack ever measured," NRCS Hydrologist Cara McCarthy said in the agency’s statement. "For the first time, some sites were snow-free on March 1st. These areas can expect reduced summer streamflow."