Is California Prepared for Another Dry Year? It Depends...

Yesterday, the California Department of Water Resources announced its initial, conservative estimate of how much water it will deliver from the Delta.  Since 2013 has, so far, been one of the driest years on record, there was some irony that the State announced an initial 5% allocation during the first storm of the season.  The last time the state announced an initial 5% allocation (for 2010) the final allocation was 50%. So while there’s a 90% chance that the allocation will go up, it depends almost entirely on weather in the next few months.  For example, agricultural contractors of the federal Central Valley Project are predicting that the final allocation will range from 65% if it’s wet, 25-40% with average hydrology, and 0-5% if it’s dry.  Dry conditions, not fishery protections, are the primary cause of lower allocations, and hydrology over the next few months will largely determine CVP and SWP water supply allocations. 

Is California prepared for another dry year?  It probably depends on where you live.  Thanks to investments in water conservation, storage, and regional water supplies that have reduced reliance on water imports, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has announced that it does not plan to reduce water supplies to member agencies throughout Southern California or impose mandatory conservation measures.   MWD will have more than 2 million acre feet of water in storage at the end of 2013 (in addition to emergency reserves), should 2014 prove to be a dry year.  


By reducing reliance on the Delta, improving water use efficiency, and investing in regional water supplies (and storage), Southern California shouldn’t face water shortages if 2014 proves to be a third dry year.  Other areas of the state, which haven’t reduced reliance on the Delta, haven’t built their own storage to save water for future dry years, and haven’t invested as much in conservation and local supplies, may not be as well off.  This illustrates the wisdom of the 2009 Delta Reform Act's establishment of state policy to reduce reliance on the Delta and invest in conservation, recycling, stormwater capture, and other local supplies to increase regional self-sufficiency.

Dry years also highlight the seeming inequities of California’s “first in time, first in right” water rights system.  In 2012, even as South of Delta agricultural contractors like the Westlands Water District got a 20% allocation from the CVP, the Bureau delivered 100% allocations to other agricultural users in the Central Valley including the Exchange Contractors (875,000 acre feet), South San Joaquin Irrigation District and Oakdale Irrigation District (600,000 acre feet), and Sacramento River Settlement Contractors (up to 2.1 million acre feet).  Likewise, the State Water Project in recent years has delivered a 100% allocation to the so-called Feather River Settlement Contractors (up to 1.2 million acre feet), while SWP contractors got a 35% allocation in 2013.  Indeed, most of California’s 8.1 million acres of irrigated farmland do not get water from the CVP or SWP.  While water rights may not seem fair (particularly to those who have junior water rights or contracts!), they are a foundation of California water law.

And some of those senior water rights holders also transfer water to CVP/SWP water contractors and other water users.  More than 1 million acre feet of water has been transferred each year in recent years, helping to meet water needs across the state.  In addition to water transfers and CVP/SWP supplies, most contractors also get water from groundwater, storage, and other sources. 

Finally, dry years also put enormous stress on California’s rivers, the Bay-Delta, and our fisheries and wildlife (and the fishing and other jobs that depend on a healthy ecosystem).  In dry years, we typically take an even higher percentage of water out of the Bay-Delta and our rivers, with salmon and other fish populations usually declining in dry years, sometimes precipitously.  We can’t make it rain.  But by reducing reliance on the Delta and investing in water conservation and regional water supplies we can leave our rivers healthier, make our cities and farms more resilient, and better weather the dry years to come.