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Extreme drought means meager portions for California water agencies

Five percent allocations sound bad, but it's better than the zero percent initial allocation for 2022.

(CN) — California water officials have announced public water agencies will be receiving 5% of the water they've requested for 2023, thanks to what is expected to be the fourth year of extreme drought. It is only the initial allocation from the State Water Project — more water could be sent to local agencies later in the year if conditions improve.

"This early in California’s traditional wet season, water allocations are typically low due to uncertainty in hydrologic forecasting," Karla Nemeth, director of the California Department of Water Resources, said in a statement. "But the degree to which hotter and drier conditions are reducing runoff into rivers, streams and reservoirs means we have to be prepared for all possible outcomes."

Five percent of the water the 29 public water agencies asked for may sound bad — and it is — but it's actually something of an improvement over last year, when the initial allocation was zero percent "with limited water designated only for any unmet human health and safety needs." Eventually, that allocation was raised to 5%.

In 2021, California had its snowiest December in half a century. But the rest of the winter was mostly a dry one, and one wet month wasn't enough to pull the state out of its historic drought — the entire Western United States is currently experiencing the driest 23-year period on record. The State Water Project's largest reservoir, Lake Oroville, is at just over a quarter of its capacity, and a little more than half of its average level for this time of year, although it is up a bit from this same time last year.

California typically receives half its rain and snowfall by the end of January. If the state experiences an adequate amount of rain and snowfall, officials could still release more than the initial allocation of 5% to water agencies. The year's final allocation will be determined in May or June.

“We are in the dawn of a new era of State Water Project management as a changing climate disrupts the timing of California’s hydrology, and hotter and drier conditions absorb more water into the atmosphere and ground," Nemeth said. "We all need to adapt and redouble our efforts to conserve this precious resource."

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