Just one day after U.S. officials declared the first-ever water shortage on the Colorado River, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California issued a water supply alert calling on the region to conserve vital resources and prepare for continued drought.
The MWD supplies water to approximately 19 million people across six Southern California counties and is one of the largest water distributors in the nation. The decision by its board Tuesday marks the first time in seven years the agency has issued an official supply alert — the third of four escalating phases in its water supply framework.
The declaration marks a call for regional agencies and consumers to voluntarily reduce their water consumption in order to mitigate the need for more severe restrictions.
Fifty of the state’s 58 counties are now under a state of drought emergency, mostly in central and northern California. Officials had hoped Southern California would not see such drastic action, with the MWD reassuring residents that the region has enough supply in reserves for the year.
But after months of climate-change-driven heat waves and a winter of critically low precipitation, reservoirs across the West are shrinking at a worrisome clip, and officials are growing increasingly concerned about dwindling supplies.
“Drought conditions are worsening, reservoir levels on both of our imported water supplies — the Colorado River and State Water Project — are reaching historically low levels,” MWD spokeswoman Rebecca Kimitch said. “And we don’t know how long these drought conditions will last.”
In recent months, the largest reservoir on the Colorado River, Lake Mead, has tipped into crisis.
Water levels in the reservoir Tuesday hovered at 1,068 feet, or about 35% of capacity, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The reservoir is considered a water lifeline for about 25 million people in the West.
MWD general manager Adel Hagekhalil said the federal decision to declare a Colorado River shortage was a “wakeup call” that a stronger response is needed amid the ongoing drought.
“The Colorado River is sending us a clear message: conserve, reuse and recycle,” Hagekhalil said in a statement. “This shortage announcement moves the river into a new era and reinforces the need for Southern Californians to use less water to preserve this critical supply.”
The MWD’s other water source, the State Water Project, isn’t faring much better.
The 705-mile storage and delivery system collects water from rivers and tributaries and redistributes it throughout the state. One of its largest reservoirs, Lake Oroville, has seen such a precipitous drop in its water level that state officials had to take its major hydroelectric power plant offline for the very first time.
The State Water Project has already reduced MWD’s water allocation to 5%, officials said. Next year, that allocation could be reduced to zero.
“We should be concerned about that,” Kimitch said of the possibility. “It is another indication of just how severe these drought conditions are. Even when the rains return, it will be harder to build back our reserves because our mountains are so dry. Everything we do now to save water will help us get though a low State Water Project allocation next year.”
Many who study water resources and drought said the actions this week were inevitable.
“This is absolutely not a surprise,” said Glen MacDonald, a UCLA distinguished professor of California and the American West. “In some ways, it’s a credit to the Bureau of Reclamation that they managed the reservoir system on the Colorado so well to avoid this up to now. But honestly, it’s unavoidable.”
MacDonald said the Colorado River Basin has proven to be even more vulnerable to climate change than scientists previously thought. Evaporation rates are highly sensitive to rising temperatures, he said, and even if precipitation were to return, it would likely not be enough to keep up with the loss of water.
This is concerning for average Californians — who are once again confronting the potential for restrictions and dead, brown lawns — but even more so for the nation’s food supply, which is highly dependent on the state’s farmlands for its provisions, MacDonald said.
Already, farmers are having to fallow fields and grapple with significant water shortages. State water regulators this month issued an emergency order barring thousands of farmers from using stream and river water.
MacDonald said the “perfect drought”— like a “perfect storm” — is one in which both the Colorado River Basin and California’s internal water supplies are affected.
“We are living in the perfect drought, right now,” he said. “It’s unfortunate, but we kind of have seen this coming.”
Some community members on Tuesday asked the board to move even faster.
“We should be planning for the driest day,” said one caller, Conner Everts of the Southern California Watershed Alliance, during the board meeting. “Until you do mandatory conservation and take that step forward, we’re not going to see the results we’ve seen in the past. And we need them now more than ever.”
Should the MWD move into the fourth and final level of its framework — water supply allocation — the agency still could not impose restrictions on customers, officials said.
Under an allocation, the MWD sets reduced amounts of water that will be provided to its 26 member agencies. Member agencies can receive water beyond these reduced amounts, but must pay higher rates for it.
Some Southern California areas have already seen water restrictions enacted, with the city of Glendale last week approving an ordinance limiting outdoor watering to three days a week and implementing a drought charge.
Other cities, like Los Angeles and Pasadena, never lifted those restrictions from previous dry years.
The MWD last issued a water supply alert in 2014, before moving into an even more restrictive phase in 2015, officials said. It was reduced to lower phases amid the wetter years of 2016 and 2017.
Demetri Polyzos, the agency’s water resource planning manager, compared the tiered system to the water district’s version of the DEFCON system used by the U.S. military.
The baseline tier is water use efficiency, followed by a water supply watch — which allows for the use of regional storage reserves — then a water supply alert, which allows for broader measures.
“The final tier, which we avoid at all costs, is going into an allocation,” Polyzos explained.
Polyzos said moving to an alert “helps send a consistent message that ‘this is serious.’”
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