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Newsom urges aggressive action as historic drought looms over summer

A year ago, California's governor asked residents to cut water usage by 15%. It hasn't happened.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Leaders from California’s largest urban water suppliers and associations met with Governor Gavin Newsom on Monday to discuss aggressive actions to combat drought.

Per Newsom’s direction, the state’s Water Resources Control Board may vote on a statewide ban on watering “nonfunctional turf” in a meeting Tuesday. 

The western United States is experiencing one of the most extensive droughts on record, a symptom of the climate change crisis. According to the California Department of Water Resources, January through March were the driest first three months in recorded state history. The largest reservoirs are at half of their historical averages, and the state’s snowpack stands at just 14% of average. The 2021 water year has so far been one of the most devastating and meteorologists across the state have reported lower rainfall than is needed to fill reservoirs. 

Local water agencies have pushed for greater flexibility on water conservation and drought response, arguing for local approaches based on regional needs and water supplies. Currently, about half of the state’s population is under local water use restrictions.

Given the state’s current levels of water conservation, Newsom called on water agencies to step up efforts to reduce water use and increase outreach efforts about conservation. He warned that if these efforts do not yield reductions in water usage over the summer, the state may enact mandatory restrictions.

“Every water agency across the state needs to take more aggressive actions to communicate about the drought emergency and implement conservation measures,” Newsom said. “Californians made significant changes since the last drought but we have seen an uptick in water use, especially as we enter the summer months. We all have to be more thoughtful about how to make every drop count.”

Agencies must also submit water use data more frequently in order to accurately measure whether California is meeting conservation goals, Newsom said.

The governor called for a voluntary water use reduction of 15% from all Californians a year ago. In March this year, the data showed the state failed to meet this goal and Newsom issued an executive order calling on local water agencies to escalate responses to the ongoing drought. 

On Tuesday, the Water Resources Control Board may ban all watering of nonfunctional turf in commercial, industrial and institutional sectors, and may add regulations requiring local agencies to implement water use restrictions. If these regulations are approved, a local plan for water use reduction will cover every urban area in the state.

California invested $5.2 billion for three years of statewide drought response and water resilience strategies in the California Comeback Plan for 2021. This year, Newsom has proposed an additional $2 billion for drought response, with $100 million in addition to a previous investment of $16 million for statewide education on drought. The state is also using the Water Resilience Portfolio with more than 142 separate actions for state agencies to take to ensure that California’s water systems can cope with rising temperatures, shrinking snowpacks, rising sea levels and more intense and frequent periods of drought. 

East Bay Municipal Utility District spokesperson Andrea Pook said the district recently went to mandatory conservation levels. The district has asked all customers to reduce water by 10%, versus Newsom’s request for 15%, and currently customers are tracking a reduction of about 6%. 

“We are implementing a drought surcharge as well,” Pook said.

She said the district hopes these measures will increase conservation over the summer months. 

“We want to make sure we can target particularly outdoor water use during the summer months to bring that down.”

Currently, all reservoirs which the district manages in Alameda and Contra Costa counties stand at a combined 71% of capacity. Pook said customers contributed significantly to the conservation effort in 2021 and the district purchased supplemental water supplies “which helped maintain those levels as well.” 

In the North Bay, Marin Water spokesperson Adriane Mertens said the agency's local reservoir storage stands at 88.8% of total capacity compared to the average of 88.4%

“The district’s water supply is in pretty good shape for now thanks to record rainfall received back in October and December, which replenished the district’s supplies after reaching historic lows last year," Mertens said.

Mertens said Marin Water’s board of directors recently rescinded the district’s local water shortage emergency declaration put in place in 2021 and lifted some emergency restrictions. The board also adopted some temporary water rules tied to that emergency declaration into permanent, ongoing water rules, and approved an ordinance activated April 15 prohibiting the use of district water to irrigate any new ornamental lawn in commercial and municipal landscapes.

In San Diego, the county water authority's spokesperson Ed Joyce said the agency will likely release a statement Tuesday after the state board takes action. In a statement March 29, the authority’s general manager Sandra L. Kerl wrote that San Diego County’s water use has dropped over 40%.

“The water authority is a team player,” Kerl wrote. “We support the governor and will remain vigilant in our promotion of water conservation and engagement in drought management efforts, locally, regionally and across the state of California as we work together in the face of the current devastating statewide drought conditions and climate change.” 

The Department of Water Resources’ Oroville branch reported Lake Oroville, the largest reservoir in the State Water Project, stands at 55% capacity, or 69% of its historical average for this date. Lake Shasta, the largest reservoir in the state overall, stands at 40% capacity or 48% of the historical average for the date

Newsom will reconvene all water agencies in the next two months for an update on their conservation progress.

Anyone can view their region’s current drought conditions on the California Water Watch map. The state’s up to date information on all reservoirs are also online.

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