Environment / Nature

California starts its third year of drought with a record dry spell

Water resources available to San Benito County are dwindling.
San Luis reservoir levels. Courtesy of Lakes Online.
San Luis reservoir levels. Courtesy of Lakes Online.

San Benito County is facing what could be the driest year in recent memory as a result of an early thaw of the Sierra snowpacks and a lack of rain, which has led to reduced water allotments from the Central Valley Project (CVP) and falling water levels in the San Luis Reservoir. 

The first three months of 2022 have been the driest in California’s recorded history, and the National Drought Mitigation Center has classified almost all of California as being in a condition of extreme or exceptional drought.

California’s current water problems began with an unexpected rapid thaw of the Sierra Mountains snowpacks. Heavy snowfall in December 2021 brought the state’s snowpack average to 154% of normal, creating optimism that there would be sufficient water from the runoff of the pack to fill the reservoirs this year.

However, according to the California Department of Water Resources, a rapid thaw caused by record-breaking heat at the beginning of the year, together with no additional snow during what is usually a time of peak snowfall, has reduced the snowpack to an average of only 18% of normal across the state.

Northern Sierra snowpack

  • Percent of normal as of Jan. 1: 141
  • Percent of normal as of May 13: 29

Central Sierra snowpack

  • Percent of normal as of Jan. 1: 155
  • Percent of normal as of May 13: 26

South Sierra snowpack

  • Percent of normal as of Jan. 1: 168
  • Percent of normal as of May 13: 10

Statewide average snowpack

  • Percent of normal as of Jan. 1: 154
  • Percent of normal as of May 13: 18

This early thaw had a disastrous impact on the Central Valley Project, which serves as the source of water flowing into the San Luis Reservoir. While it would seem that the resulting runoff would go to fill the reservoirs, Shawn Novack, director of the Water Resources Association of San Benito County, said the water never made it that far.

Snowpack melt. Courtesy of the Central Sierra Snow Lab
Snowpack melt. Courtesy of the Central Sierra Snow Lab

“The last couple of years have been very dry,” he said. “Most of the snowpack and rain was absorbed into the ground like a super dry sponge before it even made it to the rivers. The reservoirs were already at a critically low level at the start of the season, which compounds the problem.” 

San Benito County’s allotment of water from the CVP is based on a maximum of 43,800 acre-feet per year, split between agriculture (35,550 acre-feet) and urban (8,250 acre-feet) customers. (An acre-foot is enough water to flood an acre one foot deep and is approximately the amount of water three families would use in a year.) The county usually gets around 50% of its allotment, however, with little runoff expected from the remaining snowpack, there will be no CVP water available for the county at all this year.   

Municipal/industrial and agricultural water allotment from CVP
The CVP water year runs from March 1 through the end of February

  • 2018-19: 23,635 acre-feet
  • 2019-20: 22,651 acre-feet 
  • 2020-21: 22,599 acre-feet 
  • 2021-22: 17,813 acre-feet
  • 2022-23: 0 acre-feet

Source: San Benito County Water District

“I have never seen it cut off like that,” Novack said. “They usually give us 20% to 25% of our allocation, but because of health and safety needs, we won’t be getting anything unless there is a miracle. There is a hierarchy of who gets the water, with the environment first—you have to have flow in the rivers going into the Delta to hold back the saltwater from the ocean. Otherwise, it will taint our fresh water supply.”

Making matters worse, since the beginning of the calendar year, the county has seen around four inches less than the recent average for rainfall.

2022 Rainfall in San Benito County. Graph by Alex Esquivel.
2022 Rainfall in San Benito County. Graph by Alex Esquivel.

Overall, the rainfall for the 2022 water year, which runs from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30, stands at 9.21 inches, only two inches lower than the 10-year average. However, five inches of this year’s total fell in a two-week period in November and December 2021, again being absorbed by the ground before it could reach the rivers—part of the reason 2021 was the second driest year ever recorded in the state. 

With no runoff expected from the snowpack, no rain storms expected, and no allotment of water from the CVP, this leaves the San Luis Reservoir in dire straits.

San Luis Reservoir water level as of May 15 

  • 2017: 542.70 feet
  • 2018: 511.89 feet
  • 2019: 502.40 feet
  • 2020: 493.00 feet
  • 2021: 449.80 feet
  • 2022: 442.40 feet

Source: Lakes Online

Difference of water levels in the San Luis Reservoir since 2018. Graph by Alex Esquivel.
Difference of water levels in the San Luis Reservoir since 2018. Graph by Alex Esquivel.

“San Luis is what is called an off-stream reservoir,” Novack said. “It depends strictly on water that is transported through the canals in the CVP. There will be no more water going into it, and I don’t foresee any change in that because we are getting into our dry months.”

Fortunately, according to Novack, one remaining source of water for San Benito County is at close to normal levels.

“Our saving grace is our groundwater basin,” he said. “We were able to get it almost full before this current drought started. But that is like a bank—you can’t keep taking money out if you don’t make deposits. You are going to run out. So at this point, conservation is all you can do.”

As every county in the state falls in line with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s mandated reduction in residential water use through emergency drought resolutions, Novack is focused on getting home water users to cut back on watering lawns and other landscaping.

“Around 54% of residential water use is landscaping,” he said. “For years, we had concentrated on getting people to switch to low-flow toilets and showerheads as well as using more efficient washing machines and dishwashers. We have done a really good job with that, but the targets are hardening—we have pretty much saturated that market. So the real frontier for us is trying to get people to get their landscapes under control.”

The Water Resources Association is currently offering advice along with a rebate program to help homeowners relandscape their properties. 

“From everything I read, we are in some kind of mega-drought,” Novack said. “Climate change is exacerbating things, and as the temperature goes up, it increases demand. We have to change the way we get our water supply, including recycling water and developing storage systems, but the one thing we can do in the meantime is conserve and stretch our water supply.”

 

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Robert Eliason

I got my start as a photographer when my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. He taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.  The editors at BenitoLink first approached me as a photographer. They were the ones to encourage me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  BenitoLink is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community and I have been pleased to be a part of it.