Facing Severe Drought Conditions, Newsom Hesitant to Implement Mandatory Water Restrictions

  • Aug 25, 2021

Just a few short years after the last drought, California seems to be confronting even worse conditions in less time. Earlier in the year, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency in 50 of California’s 58 counties and called on all local governments to implement voluntary 15% water cutbacks. This request, however, has gone largely ignored, leading to the possibility of mandatory water restrictions in as soon as six weeks from now.

On Tuesday, August 17, Newsom joined with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael Regan to tour Big Basin Redwoods State Park and discuss wildfire prevention and response efforts by the state. This visit was on the one-year anniversary of the CZU Lightning Complex and only open to credentialed media. The tour was a show of unity between the Newsom Administration and Biden Administration in addressing climate change and the increased occurrence of wildfires and drought.

With the 2012-2016 drought being so fresh in memories, there are obvious comparisons to be made to the response from then-Governor Jerry Brown. In the fourth year of that drought, Brown issued a mandatory order for Californians to reduce their water use by 25% after voluntary efforts failed. The state seems to be in a much worse predicament now as it is only the second year of the current drought.

A survey of the state’s water reservoirs found that many of the major water storage facilities are less than a third full. Lake Oroville, the largest state-owned reservoir, is the lowest it has been since it was erected in 1969, at 23% of capacity. With Lake Oroville being so low, state officials had to make the decision to turn off the Oroville Dam turbines and take a major hydroelectric power plant offline for the first time in history. Similarly, Lake Shasta, the largest in the state, is at 29% of capacity, Folsom Lake is 23% full, and San Luis Reservoir is 16% full.

This drought is certainly not limited to Northern California. On the same day Newsom and Regan toured Big Basin, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) issued a supply alert as the federal government declared the first-ever water shortage on the Colorado River. MWD gets much of their water from Lake Mead, part of the Colorado River system, as part of the Colorado River Compact that split up the allocation of the water of the Colorado River between the adjoining Western states. California is party to the lower Colorado River distribution that includes Nevada and Arizona. According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Lake Mead is currently at 35% of capacity.

All of these circumstances could have a very real impact for California’s pool and spa industry should the Governor call for a mandatory water reduction. Around the state, local governments have implemented updated versions of their Urban Water Management Plans (UWMPs) and Water Shortage Contingency Plans (WSCPs), as required on a five-year basis. Many of the updated WSCPs include provisions to prohibit the filling of new pools and spas should certain drought / shortage levels be ordered by local officials. A statewide mandatory emergency order would significantly impact how quickly those restrictions get put into place.

During the prior drought, there was a large push for replacing water-thirsty landscaping with features that were more drought tolerant. However, there has been little recognition so far in this drought of the benefits that pools and spas offer in terms of drought tolerance and replacing traditional lawns. A new pool, in its first year of installation and filling, saves 10,000 gallons, and 30,000 gallons annually after that.

Furthermore, the Public Policy Institute of California published a study on water use in California and found only 10% of the state’s water is for urban uses. This means any prohibition on filling new pools and spas has a negligible impact on conserving water in periods of drought.

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