Despite epic rain and snow, California keeps emergency drought restrictions in place

California’s snowpack is at 184% of average for this time of year. Cities from San Francisco to Los Angeles have recorded their highest rain levels in years. Rockslides and flooding hit Northern California.

And the spillway of the state’s massive dam at Lake Oroville, once a symbol of the state’s brutal drought when it sat near empty, is actually eroding due to so much runoff from fall and winter rains. 

Despite all this, the State Water Resources Control Board on Wednesday held firm in the face of opposition and extended the state’s emergency drought regulations, pledging to revisit them in May, when the state’s traditional rainy season has ended.

“We’re certainly well-situated compared to previous years, but we’ve learned things can change suddenly. Warm rain or higher temperatures can quickly degrade snowpack,” said board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus.

As it did last May, the board found on Wednesday that it was still too early to lift emergency rules that limit urban water use and mandate that municipal water agencies provide monthly reports on their water reserves, supply and demand.

“Many parts of the state are still in pain, but a lot fewer,” Marcus said.

The board decided last spring that local water districts were allowed to set their own savings targets based on water supply and demand forecasts tailored to their areas. That means that places that received a lot of rain — and communities that purchase or are entitled to water from sources there — see fewer restrictions, while dry areas without water from those replenished supplies are still under conservation requirements.

Much of Northern California is out of drought thanks to one of the wettest seasons on record. Southern California has also seen record rainfall, but parts of the Central Coast and Central Valley remain in drought.

Groundwater shortages remain in many areas, including the southern Central Valley.

Board members said it was most prudent to wait until the rainy season ends and assess the conditions statewide before making changes in regulations.

“Water conservation is a way of California from now on,” said board member Steven Moore.

But that doesn’t sit well with everyone.

Paul Helliker, general manager for the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District, among the rainiest areas of the state, said that his agency has enough water stored to last another five years of drought and that monthly reporting is unnecessary. Other critics argued that water conservation can be handled on the local level.

State officials believe their process results in better conservation.

Since the emergency regulations were put in place, the state water board has seen greater compliance with agencies reporting their annual water use and customers adhering to conservation rules, Moore countered. Though the drought regulations may be nearing the end of their shelf life, the culture that made them such a success has to remain, he said.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which sought an end to the regulations, agreed with Moore’s statement.

“While the emergency has ended, the need to conserve has not,” district General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger said in a statement. “Southern Californians have learned a lot about water conservation during the latest drought. We cannot afford to forget those lessons.”

Back in Oroville, state engineers spent Wednesday trying to figure out how much water they could send down the dam’s damaged spillway.

The state planned to make test releases, knowing the flows likely will enlarge the 30-foot-deep hole in the concrete spillway of California’s second-largest reservoir.

Workers discovered the erosion a day earlier and stopped the high releases the state was making from the reservoir to maintain required space for runoff from an upcoming weekend storm.

To partially counter the spillway shutdown, they increased releases through Oroville’s power plant on Wednesday. But there is a limit to that tactic.

That leaves the state with a difficult choice: keep sending water down the spillway, which will worsen the damage, or let the reservoir fill, which would send flows gushing down a separate emergency spillway that is not paved or gated.

Department of Water Resources officials want to avoid doing that if possible, but as a precaution, workers are clearing trees and debris from downstream areas. Engineers also are looking for ways to bolster the spillway.

“The dam is sound, and no imminent threat to the public exists,” the department emphasized in a news release.

Oroville is the key reservoir in the State Water Project, which sends Northern California supplies to the urban Southland.

The recent parade of storms that have pounded Northern California filled reservoirs to above-average levels for this time of year, forcing managers to ramp up releases to make room for more inflow.

After the state halted spillway releases Tuesday, so much runoff continued to flow into the reservoir that Oroville went from 80% full to 84% overnight.

“At this point, they have to be prepared to use the broken spillway,” said Ron Stork, who has studied Oroville operations as a policy staffer for Friends of the River, an environmental group. “If they don’t, the reservoir is going to rise, and there is no place to put a big inflow.”

Typically, reservoir releases are made through Oroville’s power plant, and the spillway is used only for high releases. The last time managers opened the spillway valves was in 2011.

joseph.serna@latimes.com

bettina.boxall@latimes.com

Twitter: @JosephSerna and @boxall

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UPDATES:

7:05 p.m.: This story was updated with additional details about the emergency regulations, comments from state and local officials, and additional information about the damaged spillway at Lake Oroville.

This story was originally published at 4:50 p.m.

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