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Newsom signs executive order to increase statewide stormwater capture

California must take aggressive measures to preserve precious water supplies even as scientists assess how much recent rainfall will alleviate drought conditions.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — California is under new orders as of Monday to aggressively work to protect all water supplies from weather extremes brought on by climate change. 

Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order to expand statewide storm runoff capture capacity, noting how years of prolonged drought finally paused after three weeks of atmospheric river storms slammed the Golden State at the beginning of the year. Those storms have been followed by a mostly dry February, and the governor warned the state could see a return to warm and dry conditions during the remaining weeks of the rain season. 

Current projections indicate that hotter and drier weather conditions could reduce the state’s annual water supply by up to 10% by the year 2040. And the state drought tracker, last updated Feb. 9, still shows most of California in moderate to severe drought — particularly in the agricultural hubs of the southern Central Valley and northern Sacramento Valley. 

Newsom's order continues conservation measures, and allows the State Water Board to reevaluate requirements for reservoir releases and diversion limitations to maximize water supplies north and south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. 

Governor Gavin Newsom walks the Deer Creek area to survey flood conditions in California on Jan. 8, 2023. (Office of the Governor via Courthouse News Service )

The governor also directed different state agencies to provide recommendations on the state’s drought response actions by the end of April. Those directives could include the possibility of terminating emergency provisions that are no longer needed, with greater clarity about the year’s hydrologic conditions.

Heavy rains in fall 2021 gave way to the driest January-March in over 100 years, Newsom noted. And while recent rainfall helped increase snowpack to “impressive” levels and replenish reservoirs, drought conditions still threaten vulnerable communities with unstable water supplies. 

Groundwater use accounts for 41% of the total water supply, but as much as 58% in a critically dry year, with approximately 85% of public water systems relying on groundwater as their primary supply. Groundwater basins take much longer by months to recharge from heavy storms than surface reservoirs do, state water scientists have noted — which makes it difficult to tell how much recent storms helped California's water bank. The state data exchange center reports that some of the state’s key reservoirs are still below historic average levels.

“The frequency of hydrologic extremes that is being experienced in California demonstrates the need to continually adapt to promote resiliency in a changing climate,” Newsom said in a statement. “To protect water supply and the environment given this new reality, and until it is clear what the remainder of the wet season will hold, the executive order includes provisions to protect water reserves, and replace and replenish the greater share of rain and snowfall that will be absorbed by thirstier soils, vegetation and the atmosphere.”

The governor pointed to more than $8.6 billion already committed in the last two budget cycles to build water resilience. Newsom’s proposed 2023-2024 state budget suggests adding an additional $202 million for flood protection and $125 million for drought related actions.

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