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Do Southern California water wholesalers have enough supply for 3 more years of drought?

A view of Lake Oroville from the Lime Saddle area, near Paradise. The reservoir is at 41% of capacity.
Lake Oroville, a major source of water for southern California, received enough runoff this spring to release water over its dam for the first time in five years. This photo was taken when the reservoir was at 41% full.

Wednesday will be a day of reckoning for California water wholesalers like Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District (MWD). They have to prove to the state that they have enough water to get through three more years of drought. If they don’t, they need to figure out how much they need to save. It’s a big change from the way the state was regulating water just a month ago. Let’s break it down.

What’s different?

Well, to put it simply, rain.

2015 was the driest year in 500 years. And last spring, Governor Jerry Brown ordered cities to collectively cut their water use by 25 percent — the first urban water restrictions ever in state history.  

But this winter it rained and — more importantly — it snowed. And the state’s most important reservoirs in Northern California filled up. Southern California gets a lot of its water from Lake Oroville. Because of that, the state water board was under a lot of pressure to relax the mandatory water restrictions.

Are water agencies going to be conserving water at all anymore?

Yeah, they are. The difference is that this time around the state isn’t telling them how much they have to conserve. They’re deciding. They have to prove they have enough water to make it through  three more dry years.

The state has given them a calculation that takes into account projected supplies and demand. If at the end of the three years, the calculation indicates they’re going to be short, they’ll have to start conserving now to make sure they'll have enough. If it looks like they’ll have some water left over, they won’t have to conserve.

We’ll hear from the wholesalers — like MWD — on Wednesday. And then the individual water agencies — like the L.A. Department of Water and Power —that buy from MWD next week. But if MWD works out its calculations and finds it doesn’t have to conserve, that might mean that the water agencies that are its customers might not have to either. 

So I can go back to watering my lawn in the rain and spraying down my sidewalk?

Nope, there’s now a permanent statewide ban on wasteful uses of water. And the state water board is hoping water agencies will encourage their customers to continue cutting back, even if they don’t impose mandatory conservation targets.

But Tracy Quinn with Natural Resources Defense Council is skeptical. She says voluntary conservation is simply not as effective as mandatory restrictions. She points to what happened in 2014, when Governor Jerry Brown asked for a 20 percent voluntary statewide reduction in water use that was only met once.

“We’re still in an emergency drought situation,” Quinn said. “Messages like, ‘we’re relaxing conservation standards or in some parts of the state eliminating them all together,’ are really worrisome.”

Quinn said she will be looking closely at water agencies’ plans to make sure they are being realistic about their water supplies.

What happens if they’re not realistic?

The state water board has made it clear that it has the right to re-institute mandatory water restrictions if it thinks individual water agencies aren’t doing a good job managing their supplies.

Individual water agencies’ plans are due on June 22, and water board staff will be looking closely to make sure they can provide the water they say they can.