California Reservoirs: The state’s two largest reservoirs are already at “extremely low levels” and the dry season is just beginning

Years of poor rainfall, glaciers and extreme heat waves have directly fueled the state’s severe, multi-year drought conditions, rapidly depleting statewide reservoirs. According to this week’s report from the US Drought Observatory, the two major reservoirs are at “very low levels” at a time of year when they should be highest.
This week, Lake Shasta is just 40% of its total capacity, the lowest it hasn’t seen at the beginning of May since records began being kept in 1977. Meanwhile, further south, Lake Oroville is at 55% of its capacity, 70% of its capacity. Where you should be at this time on average.
Lake Shasta is the state’s largest reservoir and the cornerstone of California’s Central Valley Project, a complex water system consisting of 19 dams and reservoirs as well as more than 500 miles of canals, stretching from Redding to the north, all the way south to the drought-stricken Bakersfield landscape .

Water levels in Lake Shasta are now less than half the historical average. According to the US Bureau of Reclamation, agricultural clients who are major water rights holders and some irrigation areas in the eastern San Joaquin Valley will receive water deliveries for the Central Valley project this year.

“We expect that in the Sacramento Valley alone, more than 350,000 acres of farmland will be cleared,” Mary Lee Knecht, public affairs officer for California’s Great Basin region, told CNN. For perspective, it’s an area larger than Los Angeles. “Cities and towns that receive [Central Valley Project] Water supplies, including for Silicon Valley communities, have been scaled back for health and safety needs only.”

Jessica Gabel of Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit advocacy group focused on food and water security as well as climate change, said much is at stake as supplies run low. She said the impending summer heat and water shortages will affect California’s most vulnerable residents, particularly those living in farming communities, who are hardest hit.

“Communities across California are going to struggle this year during the drought, and it’s just a matter of how much they’re suffering,” Gabel told CNN. “It’s usually the most vulnerable communities that will suffer the worst, so Central Valley usually comes to mind because this is a really arid part of the state with most of the state’s agriculture and most of the state’s energy development, both of which are water-intensive industries.”

Only 5% of water will be saved

Lake Oroville is the largest reservoir in the California State Water Project system, which is separate from the Central Valley Project, which is managed by the California Department of Water Resources (DWR). It provides water for 27 million Californians and 750,000 acres of farmland.

Last year, Oroville took a big hit after the water level dropped to just 24% of total capacity, forcing an important California hydroelectric plant to close for the first time since it opened in 1967. The water level in the lake was well below the boat ramps, mains and The exposed clouds that usually send water to power the dam.

Although severe storms at the end of 2021 eased record-low levels for the lake, and power plant operations resumed, state water officials are concerned about another dire situation as this summer’s drought worsens.

“The fact that this facility closed last August, and it hasn’t happened before, and the chances of it happening again are very real,” said the California governor. Gavin Newsom said at a press conference in April while touring Oroville Dam, noting that the climate crisis is changing the way water is delivered across the region.

According to DWR, the Oroville Reservoir’s low levels are causing water agencies that rely on the state project to “receive only 5% of needed supplies in 2022,” DWR spokesperson Ryan Indian told CNN. “These water agencies are urged to enact mandatory water use restrictions in order to increase their available supplies during the summer and fall.”

The Bureau of Reclamation and Water Management, in coordination with state and federal agencies, is also taking unprecedented measures to protect the critically endangered winter chinook salmon for the third consecutive year from drought. Reclamation officials are securing temporary cooling units to cool the water in one of their fish hatcheries.

Lake Shasta, California's largest water reservoir, is the primary source for collecting and delivering large quantities of water through the Central Valley and into the Sacramento River Delta where the California State Water Project (also known as the California Canal) begins, transporting water to Southern California and all between regions.

Both reservoirs are a vital part of the state’s larger water system, and are linked by canals and rivers. Therefore, even if the smaller reservoirs are replenished by winter rainfall, declining water levels in Shasta and Oroville still affect and drain the rest of the water system.

For example, Lake Folsom’s water level reached nearly 450 feet above sea level this week, which is 108% of its historical average for this time of year. But with water levels lower in Shasta and Oroville, annual water volumes from Lake Folsom this summer may need to be larger than normal to make up for the significant shortfall in other reservoirs.

California relies on storms and winter precipitation to create snow mass in the Sierra Nevada, which then gradually melts during the spring and replenishes the reservoirs.

Facing successive years of drought and record-breaking heat waves that pushed droughts into historic lands, California got a taste of the rain it was looking for in October, when the season’s first major storm surged ashore. Then in late December, more than 17 feet of snow fell in the Sierra Nevada, which the researchers said was enough to break decades-old records.
Lake Powell officials are taking unprecedented emergency steps to delay water release as water levels drop
But precipitation decreased in January, and the water content in the state’s ice this year was only 4% of normal by the end of winter.
Moreover, in Southern California, water district officials announced unprecedented water restrictions last week, requiring businesses and residents in parts of Los Angeles, Ventura and San Bernardino counties to cut outdoor irrigation for one day a week starting June 1.

Gabel said that as California enters a hotter, drier future than anyone has experienced before, officials and residents need to rethink the way water is managed across the board, or else the state will continue to be unprepared.

“Water is supposed to be a human right,” Gabel said. “But we don’t think about that, and I think until that changes, unfortunately, water scarcity will continue to emerge as a symptom of the deepening climate crisis.”

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