Executive Summary for May 20th

In this weekly roundup, we analyze key developments in the California drought, including new conservation rules. We also look at what land use projections tell us about future water use, and the critical state of Lake Mead.

Published on May 20, 2016 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Goodbye Conservation Mandate, But Not Conservation

This week the State Water Resources Control Board officially voted to say goodbye (for now) to the emergency water conservation mandate that enacted cuts between 8 percent and 36 percent across the state.

We wrote last week about how these changes would trade state-imposed water conservation targets with a plan to allow water suppliers to set their own targets after demonstrating a supply plan for three years of dry conditions.

While this may at first glance appear that conservation targets will be tossed aside now that individual suppliers have control, that won’t be the case everywhere. Northern California communities, which received much more rain this winter and spring than Central and Southern California, will likely see fewer restrictions.

The further south you go, the tougher things get. Because of California’s far-reaching water supply system that funnels water south, many Central and Southern California communities will still benefit from northern precipitation, but not everyone.

“Water districts dependent on still suffering reservoirs, such as New Melones in the Central Valley, could be forced to set their conservation targets higher because their supplies remain diminished,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “Communities in that region that rely on groundwater that has dried up because of the drought are also unlikely to see much relief.”

And the article points out that the new rules may let areas like the Coachella Valley off the hook. The Coachella Valley Water District, known for its desert golf courses, struggled (and failed) to meet its 36 percent conservation mandate last year, but it has a large aquifer that would boost its water reliability, possibly eliminating or reducing its conservation efforts.

Lake Mead’s New Record

The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported some bad news: “For the next two months, the news from Lake Mead could sound like a broken record.” Prepare for a whole bunch of “record lows” this summer.

This week the reservoir hit its lowest point ever, and it’s expected to keep falling – perhaps as much as another two feet by the end of June.

Colorado River Basin states have been busy trying to negotiate how to share the fallout from the lake’s diminishing water as years of drought and overallocation have taken their toll on the river.

But some are critical that efforts to cut use will make any difference because as lower basin states plan to leave more water in the river system, upper basin states are taking more.

“Gary Wockner is executive director of Save the Colorado, a nonprofit conservation group based in Fort Collins, Colorado,” the Review-Journal reported. “He said the first round of cuts proposed by Nevada and Arizona would leave an extra 200,000 acre-feet [246.7 million cubic meters] of water in the lake, while the river system as a whole stands to lose approximately 250,000 acre-feet [308.4 million cubic meters] under new diversion projects being planned in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming.”

Seven states, including California, depend on Colorado River water.

How Land Use Affects Water

A research paper published by scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey and the Nature Conservancy examined how future land-use decisions will affect California’s long-term water picture.

California already faces water pressures from climate change and increasing population. But this paper, published in Environmental Research Letters, examined what would happen if current land-use trends, which include growing urbanization and the use of more water-intensive crops, continue for decades.

Under this scenario, total water use was estimated to increase to 1.8 billion cubic meters (1.4 million acre feet), which is an increase of 4.1 percent. “Only if currently mandated 25 percent reductions in municipal water use are continuously implemented would water demand in 2062 balance to water use levels in 2012,” the report found. Too bad the State Water Board voted this week to do away with those conservation mandates.

The thought that California will exceed its water budget in the future is probably not news for most water managers, but the study’s findings were interesting. If we continue with the business as usual approach, here is what is projected to happen:

  • Urban areas will increase by 2 million acres, or 40,000 acres a year (about the size of the city of Stockton).
  • The state will lose 1.1 million acres of grassland habitat over the next 50 years, worsening aquifer recharge
  • Water demand for annual crops will decrease 30 percent, but perennial crop demand will increase by 37.5 percent
  • Urban water use will increase from 18 percent (in 2012) to 27 percent of overall water use
  • Projected water use will increase in 38 of the state’s 46 counties by 2062

Recommended Reads:

Central Valley Business Journal: California Water Commission Approves Groundwater Guidelines
The Californian: Sustainable Groundwater Agency Sought
The Desert Sun: California Investigates Nestle Water Rights
Slate: We’re in Year Five of California’s Drought

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