California’s drought may be over, but no one’s rushing to lift restrictions

Late spring storms smothered the Sierra in snow. The state’s biggest reservoir is nearly full. Precipitation across much of California has been above average. By standard measures, California’s three-year drought is over.

“From a hydrologic standpoint, for most of California, it is gone,” said state hydrologist Maury Roos, who has monitored the ups and downs of the state’s water for 50 years.

But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t lifting his drought declaration. Los Angeles isn’t ending its watering restrictions and Southern California’s major water wholesaler isn’t reversing delivery cuts. Despite months of rain and snow and rising levels in the state’s major reservoirs, water managers aren’t ready to celebrate or make the drought’s end official.

Caution, politics and a changing water landscape are all at play.


“The concern is, if we return to a dry year next year we’re in trouble” said Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), one of the Legislature’s water policy experts. “But you also have to wonder if the drought isn’t also a convenient political tool sometimes — especially in an election year.”

The Colorado River Basin, a significant water source for the Southland, remains stuck in a long-term drought. Environmental restrictions on pumping water from Northern California will continue to reduce exports to the south. Both are cause for caution.

On the political side, an expensive water bond made its way onto the November ballot with the help of images of shrinking reservoirs and parched fields in the Central Valley.

Data from the state Department of Water Resources paint a vastly improved water picture. As of May 31, statewide precipitation was at 115% of average, reservoir storage was at 95% and runoff at 80%.


Lake Oroville, the biggest reservoir in the State Water Project system, has risen 14 feet this month and water levels are still climbing. Shasta Lake, the giant of California reservoirs, is nearly full. Roos expects June runoff to be above average, boosted by snowmelt from storms that kept fattening the Sierra snowpack well into spring.

All in all, Roos said, this is turning out to be the best water year since 2006, before the drought began. “It looks pretty good to me,” he said.

But not everything is back to normal. While most farmers in the Central Valley will get their full federal water allotment this year, the hard-hit west side of the San Joaquin Valley is still facing cuts, as are irrigation districts in the state’s northeast corner.

The state project that sends water to the Southland has ramped up deliveries from initial projections, but they will remain well below normal. State officials say that is due to strict pumping curbs in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, to protect salmon and smelt populations, and because Oroville has been slower to refill than some other reservoirs.

Water managers warn that even if the drought is over, the days of carefree water use in California are gone forever.

“We’re trying to prepare the consumer for the fact that this isn’t just a short-term thing — if it’s wet or dry. This may be every year,” said Debra Man, assistant general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which sells imported water to Los Angeles and other Southland cities. “We’re facing more than just weather.”

After jumping for much of the past decade, the MWD’s imports of Northern California water fell in recent years, not only because of the drought, but because fish protections are restricting pumping from the delta.

The Colorado River Basin, MWD’s other big supplier, is in the grip of a stubborn, long-term drought. And a complicated legal agreement struck earlier this decade calls for California to limit its use of the river to the state’s historic allotment, an amount that has been exceeded regularly in the past.


All that has diminished MWD’s supplies, draining its regional water reserves by half — too much, Man said, for the agency to end the rationing it imposed last year.

In the Bay Area, however, several districts dropped their drought restrictions as conditions improved. Los Angeles is not ready to do the same, even though the city will get slightly more water than usual from the Eastern Sierra this year.

“Things have improved. I’m happy that they have,” said James McDaniel, a senior assistant general manager in the L.A. Department of Water and Power. But “we’re still quite concerned about another dry year coming up. We could be in a real bad situation.”

Citing the same supply pressures as Man, McDaniel said he has stopped talking about drought and instead refers to “a chronic water-supply shortage. … I don’t know that it will ever be the same as it was before.”

From the start, the drought took on political dimensions. When Schwarzenegger announced his June 2008 drought proclamation, he included a plug for a massive bond to fund new water infrastructure.

When lawmakers last year approved the $11-billion bond package and placed it on this November’s ballot, they invoked the drought.

When farm interests staged angry rallies protesting irrigation cutbacks last summer, they stood next to withered fields. When Central Valley politicians attacked the Endangered Species Act, they complained that the act’s pumping limits and the drought were wrecking the valley’s economy and causing massive job losses (a claim that was not supported by farm labor statistics).

“This was a real drought. There’s no doubt about that,” said Huffman, the Assemblyman. “It caused real impacts. At the same time, I would agree the politics were extreme, especially last year and especially in the San Joaquin Valley. I think some folks saw an opportunity.”


Deputy Press Secretary Jeff Macedo said the governor has no plans to declare the drought over. “We haven’t gotten to that point yet.”

“After three years of drought, these communities in the Central Valley have been affected greatly. They still are feeling those effects,” he added. “This isn’t a political issue. This is part of the governor reacting to a natural disaster.”