Dire water warnings confront San Francisco and beyond

‘We will face challenges that I don’t think modern California has ever really seen before’

It’s been a tough stretch for water in the West.

On the heels of one of the warmest November weekends on record in the Bay Area came dire news of a dwindling Sierra snowpack and the increasing scarcity of California’s water supply.

The conditions spurred Governor Gavin Newsom’s administration to announce last week that customers served by the State Water Project, a complex system of dams canals and pipes that snake from the foothills of the Sierras down to Los Angeles, should expect to receive a zero percent allocation of water next year, except in cases of emergency — the first time that such a restrictive order has been issued.

This doesn’t mean water will stop flowing through the project’s pipelines entirely, but it could spell challenges ahead for cities and farms that depend on the Sierra Nevada’s snowmelt, which scientists at UC Berkeley recently found may be shrinking rapidly in a warming world.

Although San Francisco’s water exists independently of the State Water Project, The City also is feeling the strains of a shrinking supply. Late last month, Mayor London Breed declared a water shortage emergency and issued a voluntary 10% reduction in water use across the regional system managed by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC).

“With California still experiencing devastating drought and the uncertainty around this rainy season, we need to make tough decisions that will ensure that our water source continues to be reliable and dependable for the future,” Breed said in a statement.

Making those tough decisions may soon become the new normal for Californians. “There’s going to be really hard choices between how to balance human health and safety demand relative to agricultural demand relative to environmental needs,” said Erik Ekdahl, deputy director for the Division of Water Rights at the State Water Resources Control Board. “That’s what we saw in 2021. But that was starting with reservoir conditions that were much better than they are currently. If we don’t add to those conditions, it’s going to be much harder.”

Although October’s rains helped recharge the soils and produced some runoff in the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, water levels were lower than they were during the 2012-2015 drought, said Michelle Stern, a hydrologist at the United States Geological Survey.

But if this year’s La Niña weather pattern persists, climatologists say the dry weather is likely to continue this winter, particularly across the southern part of the state, which may further burden San Francisco’s water supply and trigger more rigorous conservation efforts statewide.

“The longer we go without seeing frequent and significant precipitation in these months, the greater impact it will have in terms of our overall storage and supply, which is already severely depleted after 2020 and 2021,” said Ekdahl.

The worsening drought is also top of mind for environmental groups who have started to pressure Newsom to curtail the rights of heavy industry in the state, including the oil and gas and agricultural sectors, which they say consumes a disproportionate share of the state’s water supply.

“It is unthinkable that serial water abusers like Big Ag and Big Oil can reap billions of dollars in profits while thousands of wells around California go dry and our environment deteriorates,” said Alexandra Nagy, Food & Water Watch’s California director.

Last week, Nagy’s organization, along with nearly 50 others, urged Newsom to use his executive powers to address the statewide drought emergency, demanding he place a moratorium on new oil and gas operations, factory farms and large slaughterhouses while restricting huge farms that grow almonds and alfalfa from sucking up all the available groundwater. That type of agriculture is still largely unregulated by the federal government, although a law going into effect over the next two decades will work to change that.

“COVID has been such an illustrative example of what’s possible in a true emergency situation,” said Nagy. “I think we’re there with water because we’re really talking about the future of food for our country and the livability of this state.”

But even with the most stringent water conservation efforts in place, it’s unlikely conditions will improve without some serious precipitation, experts said.

“If this next year is as dry as last year was, we will face challenges that I don’t think modern California has ever really seen before,” said Ekdahl. “That sounds pretty dire. But I mean it to sound pretty dire.”

jwolfrom@sfexmainer.com

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