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State, federal water deliveries forecast to increase for millions of Californians

Sprinklers water a lawn at Golden Gate Park on June 14, 2021, in San Francisco as the severe drought emergency takes hold in California. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

State and federal water managers announced Wednesday increased deliveries for millions of Californians in response to hopeful hydrologic conditions that materialized over the past several weeks.

After a series of powerful storms brought rain and snow to much of California in December and January, increased reservoir levels led the state’s Department of Water Resources (DWR) to set its delivery forecast at 30% of requested water supplies for the 29 public water agencies that draw from the State Water Project to serve 27 million people and 750,000 acres of farmland. 

On Wednesday, DWR slightly increased its delivery forecast to 35% of requested supplies while noting that so far February has been fairly dry.

“We’re hopeful that more storms this week are a sign that the wet weather will return, but there remains a chance that 2023 will be a below average water year in the northern Sierra,” said DWR director Karla Nemeth.

Also on Wednesday, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation published its initial water allocation numbers for the Central Valley Project, the state’s other water storage and delivery backbone.

Deliveries for most of the urban and industrial water users that draw from that system were set at 75% of historical usage, up from just 25% last year.

While some rural irrigation systems are looking at 35% deliveries, many agricultural water users in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river watersheds are forecast to receive 100% of their contracted deliveries in 2023. 

“Three years of record-setting drought in California will take some time to recover from,” said Bureau of Reclamation regional director Ernest Conant.

Currently, snowpack levels for the Sierra Nevada are well above normal and several of the state’s reservoirs are filled to at or near their historical average for this time of year, with a few notably large exceptions like Trinity, New Melones and Shasta.  

“In the short-term, the early winter storms have helped, but in the long-term, we still have much catching up to do, especially in the northern part of our system,” Conant said. 

In addition to the increased water deliveries from both the state’s major systems, water rights holders in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and Russian River areas have been allowed to start drawing from those watersheds after enduring on-and-off curtailment orders during the worst of the drought.

While Wednesday’s announcements are welcome news to drinking water systems and farmers across the state, Golden State Salmon Association president John McManus said the decision to allow some agricultural users to receive 100% of their water allocations comes at the expense of fish populations and the people who rely on them for jobs.

“That water is needed to safely deliver this year’s baby salmon from the Central Valley to the ocean,” McManus said.

“It’s also blatantly unfair and unjust, especially considering the relatively good shape of our reservoirs and the deep snowpack still in the Sierras,” he said.

Still, if the state endures another extremely dry spring, water deliveries could again drop below current expectations. 

“The Department of Water Resources is working with its state and federal partners to balance the needs of communities, agriculture and the environment should dry conditions continue this spring,” Nemeth said.

“Recent actions taken by DWR are intended to preserve water in Lake Oroville specifically to allow for additional flexibility for fish protections in the spring including Feather River pulse flows to enhance spring-run juvenile salmon survival during March and April,” she said.

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