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California Water Regulators Prepare For Another Dry Winter

In this Aug. 22, 2021, file photo, visitors look out over Lake Oroville as water levels remain low due to continuing drought conditions in Butte County, Calif.
Ethan Swope / AP
In this Aug. 22, 2021, file photo, visitors look out over Lake Oroville as water levels remain low due to continuing drought conditions in Butte County, Calif.

California's reservoirs are so low from a historic drought that regulators warned Thursday it's possible the state's water agencies could get nothing from them next year, a frightening possibility that could force mandatory restrictions for residents.

California has a system of giant lakes called reservoirs that store water during the state's rainy and snowy winter months. Most of the water comes from snow that melts in the Sierra Nevada mountains and fills rivers and streams in the spring.

Regulators then release the water during the dry summer months for drinking, farming and environmental purposes — including keeping streams cold enough for endangered species of salmon to spawn.

This year, unusually hot, dry conditions caused nearly 80% of that water to either evaporate or be absorbed into the parched soil. It caught state officials by surprise as California now enters the rainy season with reservoirs at their lowest level ever.

“Nothing in our historic record suggested the possibility of essentially that snow disappearing into the soils and up into the atmosphere at the level that it did,” California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot said. “These climate changes are coming fast and furious.”

Last year's winter was the 10th driest since 1950. Still, California's reservoirs were at 93% capacity at the beginning of the 2020 rainy season. California won't have that cushion heading into this winter. It's impossible to predict with accuracy how much rain and snow California will get this winter. But if it's anything like the last two winters, there will be even bigger problems.

“We are collecting information from the agencies we provide water to about what their human health and safety needs are in the event that they get no allocation from the State Water Project,” Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth said.

A spokesman for the State Association of Water Agencies said they could not comment on Thursday because their executive director was traveling and unavailable.

Despite the severity of the drought, Gov. Gavin Newsom has not declared a statewide emergency. Instead, he has declared emergencies in 50 of the state's 58 counties, an approach his administration says is driven by lessons learned from the most recent drought when the state-imposed restrictions statewide.

“(Water agencies) have explained to us that one size fits all mandates from Sacramento sometimes have unintended consequences,” Crowfoot said.

Still, California's water supplies are in poor condition heading into the rainy season. In July, Newsom asked everyone to voluntarily reduce their water use by 15%. But in the first three weeks after that request, Californians reduced their water usage by just 1.8%, state officials said.

In a call with reporters on Thursday, Crowfoot said mandatory water restrictions “need to be on the table.” But he indicated those restrictions likely wouldn't come until state officials have a better idea of how much water the state will get this winter.

“This winter will be determinative in terms of what additional actions we need to take on conservation,” Crowfoot said. “We'll be watching.”