Easing drought restrictions
On March 24, on the heels of recent California storms resulting in one of the wettest periods on record in the state, Governor Newsom issued Executive Order N-5-23 rolling back numerous drought-related restrictions issued during the height of the most recent drought in California, dating back to April 21, 2021.
Below are some of the key provisions of EO N-5-23:
- Ends the voluntary 15% water conservation target, while continuing to encourage that Californians make conservation a way of life;
- Ends the requirement that local water agencies implement level 2 of their drought contingency plans;
- Maintains the ban on wasteful water uses, such as watering ornamental grass on commercial properties;
- Preserves all current emergency orders focused on groundwater supply, where the effects of the multi-year drought continue to be devastating;
- Maintains orders focused on specific watersheds that have not benefited as much from recent rains, including the Klamath River and Colorado River basins, which both remain in drought;
- Retains a state of emergency for all 58 counties to allow for drought response and recovery efforts to continue.
What’s important to know about EO N-5-23?
In July 2021, the Governor called on all water users across the state to voluntary limit their water use by 15% compared to 2020 levels. While many individual water users and water suppliers made significant strides towards reaching this goal, and despite a statewide “Save Our Water” campaign, results varied across the state. As of January 2023, 111 water suppliers and 4 counties across the state had reported meeting their conservation target of 15% or more for that reporting period. EO N-5-23 rescinds this 15% conservation target, and instead simply continues to encourage Californians to conserve water. EO N-5-23 does also maintain the ban on certain wasteful water uses, including watering ornamental grass on commercial landscapes, for example. While water users are more conscious about their water use and conservation is more mainstream, without a targeted statewide approach, or metrics to track our progress towards water conservation goals, it may be increasingly difficult to see results at a statewide level and may make it difficult for future water resource planning purposes.
In March 2022, a previous Executive Order included provisions which required local water agencies to implement Level 2 of their drought contingency plans – implementing planned activities to reduce demand up to 20%. The order also encouraged local water agencies to conserve more water than required up to Level 3 (activities that reduce demand up to 30%). This provision was terminated with EO N-5-23. While it remains true for many local water agencies and suppliers that supply has drastically increased, and many local water agencies are coming out from under water supply shortages and into periods of surplus – drought contingency plans are ultimately an important tool to help reduce demand and conserve water. Water conservation should continue to be a “way of life” in California as we experience greater swings between wet and dry years.
Another key provision in EO N-5-23 is that it maintains activities to preserve California’s groundwater basins, including addressing supply shortages by increasing groundwater storage and recharge activities, particularly during storm events like those recently experienced. The prolonged drought has left many of our groundwater basins depleted due to years of overreliance and unregulated pumping. Groundwater is an incredibly important component of the hydrologic cycle and vital to take into account in the broader conversation of California drought conditions.
It’s also important to note that EO N-5-23 maintains the drought state of emergency in all 58 counties which authorizes all state government agencies to employ personnel, equipment, and facilities to perform any and all activities consistent with the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and the State Emergency Plan, for drought response and recovery efforts when they are needed.
Is the drought over?
Recent storms have provided California with an abundance of fresh water and snow – current statewide snowpack levels are at 237% of historic levels and the Northern Sierra, home of the state’s largest surface water reservoirs, is at 192% of its April 1 average. But California is not completely out of the clear and should brace for future dry years.
Despite very welcome historic gains in our reservoir and snowpack levels, it’s important to remember that 44.7% of the state remains abnormally dry, 28.1% of the state remains in moderate drought, and 2% of the state remains in severe drought, according to the current U.S. Drought Monitor for California. Additionally, as noted above, California is also facing a groundwater drought, which must be a part of the larger drought conversation. Another important component to consider is that a major California water source, the Colorado River, is in crisis, which greatly impacts water supply for Southern California residents and puts immense pressure on the state’s water system.
As noted in our last E-News article celebrating World Water Day, there is no single solution to our water crisis. When looking at current drought conditions, we need to be mindful of the past and also prepare for what’s to come even if it’s unknown. Climate change has left us susceptible to what can be best described as weather whiplash – and while it doesn’t make it easy for water managers to plan for the future, it should be a signal that we need to prepare for the unexpected.
The next drought just might be around the corner.
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