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Serving: West

Will California sink the West over water?

Todd Fitchette wfp-todd-fitchette-lake-oroville-36.JPG
California will attempt to hold back what remains of Lake Oroville for "health and safety" reasons as the state suggests it will make no State Water Project supply deliveries in 2022.
The SWP's zero allocation will prompt Southern California to turn to the beleaguered Colorado River system for water.

California's Department of Water Resources just told its 29 State Water Project contractors to expect no state water in 2022. If conditions hold, this means many agencies will be left high and dry, while others like the large Metropolitan Water District of Southern California will simply exacerbate water woes in the Colorado River basin.

If the winter continues as dry as it appears, remaining water in Lake Oroville will be conserved for local uses and what DWR calls "health and safety needs." Those reservoir conditions are dismal. Lake Oroville currently holds about 1 million acre-feet of water in storage, or less than a third of the reservoir's designed capacity.

California's 29 SWP contractors have promises for upwards of 4.2 million acre-feet (maf) of water annually, though the system is only capable of delivering between 2.5 and 3.5 maf because of system constraints.

The California State Water Resources Control Board was recently asked by DWR and the Bureau of Reclamation, owner of the federal Central Valley Project, for permission to modify water quality and right permit requirements in the Delta from February through April of next year. DWR says these modifications may be needed to conserve water in Lake Oroville to ensure minimum health and safety supplies are available later in the year if dry conditions persist. Approval of that request is pending.

The suffering won't be limited to California. Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) said in response to the state's announcement that it will seek supplies elsewhere, meaning pumping from the Colorado River will continue. As this happens, Lake Mead near Las Vegas, Nev. will surely decline further as California continues to take its full allotment from the Colorado River.

California's failure to deliver sustainable water supplies to its own farms and cities affects the entire Colorado River basin because of a 100-year-old compact that allocates over four million acre-feet of CR water to California. Meanwhile, that same compact and subsequent agreements force the other states to make water delivery cuts to their residents.

"Climate change is creating a new normal," writes MWD in a recent statement. "Looking ahead, we need to increase our investments in water efficiency, recycling and storage."

Buzzwords like "efficiency" and "recycling" won't close the supply, demand gap for water in the West. California's failure to sustainably manage its own water supplies will further impact cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix as the Colorado River's supply dwindles amidst continued urban growth in Nevada and Arizona.

Creating new and beneficial water supplies in California will likely not happen as the call for new reservoirs or desalination of Pacific Ocean water will continue to be dismissed. Perhaps this is a cue for the remaining Colorado River basin states and Mexico to revisit the entire Colorado River Compact with a fresh look at supply and demand and divorce themselves from California. Failure now could result in a titanic disaster.

TAGS: Regulatory
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