Drought Map 0513

Drought conditions in the West as of May 10.

Conditions in the Colorado River Basin could translate into Southern California water shortages later this year, according to a state water expert's assessment during a May 10 press call with the California Department of Water Resources and the State Water Board.

"We see increased risk of shortages to California because of conditions in the Colorado River Basin," Jeanine Jones, manager of interstate resources for DWR, said. Allocations from Lake Mead are traditionally "the mainstay in terms of reliability for California during drought." 

The basin supplies Southern California. To date, Jones said, the state is fortunate not to have its allocations cut; however, "we are in a world of climate change. It's here and we need to start adapting to it," she said.

Shifts in traditional weather patterns are changing how the state manages its water and requiring new perspectives incorporating the timing, pace and scale of weather events, Michael Anderson, state climatologist, said.

With dry conditions starting earlier in the water year and spanning a longer period, for example, conserving water in storage over a longer span becomes necessary, Anderson said. "We have to make use of the storage we have and wait for the fall rains to return," he said.

The snowpack—which peaked May 9—is also notably diminishing over time, Anderson said. Where the state used to periodically experience "monster snowpacks" of 200 percent of average or more, the 21st century snowpack is now 82 percent of average.

Anderson also said reservoir levels don't tell the full story of the state's water conditions. It's important to look at the watershed behind the storage facilities, he said. Lake Shasta, for example, is a "keystone reservoir" that was unable to store recent rains because of the area's volcanic geology. And Folsom storage is plentiful because it happened to be in the path of several storms, Jones said.

As reiterated during the conference, the state is not imposing statewide water restrictions as it has in the past. Each municipality has its own state-approved emergency water-conservation plans with varying tiers. The emergency level can be adjusted based on local conditions. In the last drought, for example, mandatory caps on water usage were imposed in some areas where residents had conserved and had plentiful supplies. This year, some areas—rural and disadvantaged communities—are already relying on bulk and bottled water deliveries to meet their basic needs.

Jones said the message to water users—be they residential or commercial—is that "water conservation is a way of life."

Los Angeles is among the cities moving to a new phase of its emergency water-conservation plans. Mayor Eric Garcetti said May 10 that the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power will move to Phase 3 of its emergency water-conservation plan starting June 1, pending City Council approval. Among the new restrictions, customers would have to reduce their outdoor watering from three days to two per week. The utility will also institute a public-education program.

Also on May 10, the East Bay Municipal Utility District board enacted an 8-percent drought surcharge, which goes into effect July 1. The board said the 10-cent-per-day fee is designed to collect $30.8 million from ratepayers that the district will apply to the $64.5 million it needs to manage the drought. The agency enacted Stage 2 of its emergency plan, which mandates conservation, restricts water usage and penalizes excessive water users.

DWR proposed $120 million in its initial budget for a host of programs, including drought relief and urban water-management grants. Another $180 million is being added for a total of $300 million in the May revised budget.

More storms from the Pacific brought "beneficial late-season snowfall" to the Cascade, Klamath and Sierra Nevada ranges; portions of the northern Great Basin; and the Rocky Mountains, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor's May 3 to May 10 report.

As a result, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana saw improvements in their drought levels. Northern California has had above-normal precipitation within the past 30 days. "However, the recent precipitation did little to make up for significant shortfalls observed since January 1 as well as in the broader longer-term context with 20+ inch precipitation deficits across Northern California during the past 24-month period," the Drought Monitor said.

The January through April period "was the driest (-9.7-inch deficit) on record for California while the last 24-month period (May 2020-April 2022) was the 2nd driest on record," the Drought Monitor said. The agency based its assessment on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Centers for Environmental Information statewide climate rankings. It said the ranking for January through April also applied to the West Climate Region—California and Nevada. The Southwest Climate Region, which includes the Four Corners states, had the third-driest January through April period.

The period between May 2020 and April 2022 was the driest on record for the Southwest Climate Region and the second-driest for the West Climate Region.

The May 10 Natural Resources Conservation Service SNOTEL median snow-water equivalent levels were 124 percent in the Pacific Northwest, 68 percent in California, 66 percent in the Upper Colorado Basin and 10 percent in the Lower Colorado Basin.

The May 12 California SWE measured 4.1 inches based on DWR's electronic readings from 99 stations. This is 23 percent of average for the date. 

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's Reservoir Storage Dashboard shows that of the 44 facilities the agency operates in the western U.S. and tracks on the website, seven had the lowest observed storage levels in the past 30 years of data collection between May 8 and May 9: Lake Mead-Hoover Dam; Lake Powell-Glen Canyon Dam; Shasta Lake-Shasta Dam; Blue Mesa Dam and Reservoir; Trinity Lake and Dam; Whiskeytown Lake-Whiskeytown Dam; and Jackson Lake-Jackson Dam in Wyoming.

Lake Powell was at 24 percent of capacity with a water level of about 3,523 feet, according to Reclamation's May 9 report.  

Lake Mead was at 30 percent of capacity and its water level was at approximately 1,052 feet.

The full Lower Colorado River system is at 34 percent of capacity, with about 20.3 million acre-feet of water in storage.  

Salt River Project storage was at about 76 percent of capacity as of May 12, with approximately 1.52 million acre-feet of water stored in the system, according to SRP's daily report.

Lake Oroville's water elevation was at about 776.5 feet as of midnight May 11, with roughly 1.9 million acre-feet of water in storage, which is 55 percent of capacity and 70 percent of average.

Lake Shasta's water elevation was at roughly 946.5 feet with 1.82 million acre-feet of water in storage, according to state measurements, which is 40 percent of capacity and 48 percent of average.

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