Reservoirs Post Higher Levels Than a Year Ago


After five years of severe drought, California has made it through the summer in a position that seemed unthinkable at the start of the hot season--with water levels in state reservoirs higher than a year ago.

Strict rationing in all likelihood will remain in force if the dry spell continues, but water officials have hoarded supplies so effectively that a sixth year of this drought--already the state’s longest since the 1930s--no longer looms as a certain catastrophe for cities.

“I think we go into the next year better prepared for a dry year than we were coming into this year, if only because we have more water in storage,” said California Resources Secretary Douglas P. Wheeler. “Unless it (the drought) gets considerably worse, we won’t have higher shortages.”

As the fifth year of drought draws to an official close today, the state-run reservoirs that stretch like a necklace from Oroville in the north to Perris in the south are holding 2.4 million acre-feet of water--562,753 acre-feet more than last Sept. 30, about enough to supply the city of Los Angeles for a year.


State water supplies have kept up with demand in Orange County, thanks to successful conservation efforts. The city of Irvine, which socked away extra water in anticipation of high summer demand that failed to materialize, found itself sitting on 2 billion extra gallons, so it sold some to the Orange County Water District to replenish supplies for the northern part of the county.

Conservation also exceeded expectations in other cities. San Clemente flew past its 20% mandated cutback and saved 38%, partly because of cooler weather and a drop in tourism. Tustin residents cut their usage by 31%.

The statewide figures signal a new milestone for the state, marking the first time since the onset of unusually dry weather in 1987 that the operators of the vast State Water Project have managed their deliveries to end a critically dry year without drawing down reservoirs.

“I think the water managers have finally realized that just because they want it to rain doesn’t mean it’s going to rain,” said Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar).


But while another dry year may not cause cataclysmic changes in urban lifestyles, the prospects elsewhere remain more ominous. Agriculture, which survived this year without disastrous economic loss, would confront greater shortages and higher costs. Fragile species of fish and wildlife, already under stress because of the drought, face endangerment and possible extinction if the dry conditions continue.

The increase in reservoir storage is, after all, only one bright postscript to a water year that otherwise brought pain and inconvenience. For the “water year” ending today, overall snow and rainfall was 77% of normal; more important, the runoff that feeds the reservoirs and aqueducts was only 43% of normal. To save water, many districts instituted strict rationing during the year, and the State Water Project stopped deliveries to agriculture and reduced the flow to municipal customers by 80%.

It was a year in which the Legislature, despite the drought, did little to address California’s long-term water problems. Stalled in the legislative process were bills that would make it easier for farmers to sell water to cities and that would require the installation of more ultra-low flush toilets. The only major water bill to pass--a measure dealing with desalination--may be vetoed by the governor.

It also was a year in which a historic water alliance between farmers and cities broke apart. Urban water managers, turning more competitive in their dealings with agriculture interests, pressed for a greater share of scarce supplies. In normal years, about 80% of all water available for consumption--other than that from wells--goes to agriculture; 20% goes to urban and industrial users.


“The water wars have started again,” observed one exasperated state official.

That strain surfaced in the final weeks of the water year when the Kern County Water Agency--which primarily serves agriculture--and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California squabbled over about 100,000 acre-feet of water that the state planned to release from the San Luis Reservoir. Kern County asked for the water as a loan that would be repaid to the state system if and when the rains come next year. MWD argued that the water rightly belonged to the cities.

State officials, who were at first inclined to deliver the water to Kern County, changed their minds and decided last week in favor of cities in Southern California.

The move demonstrated the increasing political power of urban water users and helped to underscore agriculture’s plight if California is inflicted with a sixth year of drought.


Unlike the state-run reservoirs, the federally managed reservoirs of the Central Valley Project--a chief source of water for agriculture--did end this summer below last year’s levels by 636,800 acre-feet. As a result, federal officials are much more worried about a coming dry year than their counterparts in state government.

“If next year is like this year we can’t go to the bank and continue making withdrawals from storage, so we’re going to have to make deeper cuts,” said John Budd, a Bureau of Reclamation spokesman.

Even with a 75% reduction in deliveries to most customers, the federal project distributed about 3.5 million acre-feet of water this year--mostly to farmers who held old water-rights contracts immunizing them from major cuts. The result was that farmers did not suffer as much as expected in the sixth year of drought.

“To date, California agriculture has shown considerble resiliency to the impacts of the drought,” the Berkeley-based Pacific Institute said in a recent report.


If this winter is dry again, however, more of the underground basins used to irrigate crops and orchards are expected to become depleted. Overdrafting--pumping more water out of aquifers than is naturally replaced--in the San Joaquin Valley basins alone has reached an estimated 11 million acre-feet during the five years of drought.

“Nobody has stressed the aquifer as much as this before and so we don’t know what the consequences will be,” said Carl Hauge, the California Drought Information Center’s technical specialist for ground water.

Location, he said, will determine which farmers face well-water depletions. While basins such as those in the San Joaquin are heavily overdrafted, some others, particularly in the Sacramento Valley and parts of Southern California, are stable.

“My ground water since last May has dropped eight feet,” complained Joseph B. Summers, a water engineer and part-time San Joaquin Valley almond and walnut grower. “If it’s dry next year, I personally probably will lose two wells.”


Just what kind of water year lies ahead is still a mystery. The first snow flurries have lightly dusted the Sierra Nevada, the source of most of the water used in California, and historical trends suggest that next year will be wet. But the trends have been wrong the last three years.

Just to resume normal deliveries from the State Water Project, officials estimate, runoff will have to be at least 75% of normal. Historical data gives that a 60% chance of happening.

To make normal deliveries and restore reservoir storage to average levels is a longer shot; it will take runoff that is 110% of normal, and there is only a 30% chance of that happening.

How much rainfall will be necessary to produce the needed runoff is anyone’s guess.


“The problem is that nobody knows how dry the environment really is--how much water will be soaked up . . . by forests and grasslands before you begin to get runoff,” said Douglas Priest, director of the drought information center.

Although officials such as Wheeler give it little credence, others are pinning their hopes for a return to normal water use on El Nino--a weather phenomenon that produced record rainfall in California in 1983. A warming of equatorial Pacific waters, El Nino has caused atmospheric changes in the past that produced weather extremes throughout the world. In the last few months, weather experts have noted conditions in the tropical Eastern Pacific that indicate the possible development of another El Nino episode.

“I think we have as many people forecasting a wet year as we have a dry year,” said an unconvinced Wheeler. But if the pessimists are right and the rains don’t come, Wheeler said, the state is still better able to cope with drought this year than it was in 1990. In the last 12 months, for example, he said, water managers have learned that conservation and water banking are much more effective measures than anyone thought they would be.

At Gov. Pete Wilson’s direction, the Department of Water Resources established a water bank this year, buying more than 700,000 acre-feet from water-rich farming areas and distributing 400,000 acre-feet to needy districts.


In the meantime, most water districts ordered strict rationing to cut back on usage. Citizens responded by far exceeding the rationing goals, saving as much as 30% in most areas.

“Conservation has been more successful as a strategy than any of us would have imagined,” Wheeler said.