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State regulators gave a bleak drought warning this week to the farms and cities that draw drinking and irrigation water from California’s major rivers: Prepare for mandatory cutbacks.

The State Water Resources Control Board announced it was sending letters to approximately 20,000 water right holders — farmers and cities with historical legal claims to river water. Facing a third straight year of drought, the letter says they should expect to stop pulling water in the coming weeks — and even earlier than last year.

It wasn’t until last August that the water board ordered thousands of water users to cut their water use on the Sacramento and San Joaquin river watersheds — arguably the two most important rivers in the state.

“We are experiencing historic dry conditions: February is usually California’s wettest month, but January and February 2022 were the driest we’ve seen in recorded history,” the letter reads. “Statewide, precipitation is less than half the yearly average, and dry conditions are forecast to continue through spring.”

The letter is directed to water rights holders across much of California.

Like last year, the state warned those who pull water from the waterways that feed into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to expect cuts. That affects a massive swath of the state — from Mount Shasta to Modesto to Bakersfield — due to the various tributaries that flow into the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers.

Also receiving letters were those who use water from smaller rivers not connected to the Central Valley: the Russian, Scott, Shasta, Mill Creek and Deer Creek watersheds.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has so far resisted ordering mandatory water cutbacks for urban users, relying instead on a 15-percent voluntary call for conservation. But for the most part, Californians aren’t responding.

The Newsom administration announced last week it would be cutting water deliveries from the State Water Project (SWP), the elaborate network of reservoirs and canals that distributes water all over California.

The SWP’s largest customer is the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves 19 million urban residents, including those in Los Angeles and San Diego.

The project, after a promising start to winter, had originally declared that allocations would hit 15 percent. Now Metropolitan and other agencies can expect only 5 -percent allocations this year from the state project.

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