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California Gov. Newsom rolls back some drought restrictions, keeps others, as recent storms ease dry spell

<i>David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images</i><br/>On March 24
Bloomberg via Getty Images
David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images
On March 24

By Rachel Ramirez, CNN

California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday announced the removal of some drought restrictions, while keeping other measures to bolster water supply for vulnerable communities and develop water resilience after a parade of atmospheric river storms pummeled the state and boosted water supply in recent months.

Against the backdrop of the Dunnigan Hills in Yolo County, where rainwater is being channeled onto acres of farmland to slowly recharge groundwater aquifers, Newsom signed an executive order that ends the requirement for local water agencies to implement drought contingency plans of limiting outdoor irrigation to certain days or hours, increasing patrols for water waste, enforcing water-use prohibitions, and putting forward urgent calls for people to conserve water.

Newsom is also rolling back his 2021 order, urging residents and businesses to cut back their water consumption use by 15%, even though urban water usage was actually up by 19% months later.

In concert with these rollbacks, the Department of Water Resources also announced it will increase the amount of water deliveries to 75% of requested water supplies this year — up from the initial plan of only 5% last year — as a result of the recent storms. This increase represents an additional 1.7 million acre feet of water for the 29 public water agencies serving 27 million Californians. (An acre-foot is the amount of water that would fill one acre a foot deep — roughly 326,000 gallons.)

Despite these announcements, the governor made clear that Californians must continue to use water wisely and efficiently.

“We’re not out of the woods,” Newsom said at a briefing on Friday. The last three years have been the driest such period on record in California, with the West as a whole suffering through the worst drought in at least 1,200 years. Last year, state scientists also predicted that California could lose 10% of its water supplies over the next 20 years.

“It’s incumbent upon us to continue to maintain our vigilance and maintain some provisions of the executive order to allow for fast tracking of groundwater replenishment projects, stormwater capture and recycling programs here in the state of California,” he added.

Other drought measures remain in place. With a hotter and drier future projected for California, Newsom is continuing the ban on wasteful water uses including watering ornamental grass on commercial grounds.

The governor is also maintaining a state of emergency for all 58 counties, so that emergency response and recovery efforts continue.

In addition, Newsom is preserving current emergency orders focused on groundwater, because while recent storms have increased water supply — with snowpack largely reaching a record high and reservoirs being replenished to normal levels — groundwater reserves are still having a hard time recovering.

“The good news is that the wet winter has eased the drought significantly,” Jon Gottschalck, the head of forecast operations at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center, said at a media briefing last week. “Drought is expected to improve further or go away completely across much of California.”

The months of deluge have already helped raise the levels in the state’s largest reservoirs, Shasta Lake and Lake Oroville, bringing them back to historical averages. The reservoirs have risen by more than 100 to 180 feet respectively since December.

Brad Rippey, meteorologist with the US Department of Agriculture, said end-of-February storage in the state’s 154 primary intrastate reservoirs is effectively normal for the end of winter. “But storage does not yet include the amazing snowpack that will melt in coming months,” he told CNN.

According to California water officials, these reservoirs gained almost 10 million acre-feet of water from November 30 to February 28 — an improvement from 67% to 96% of normal and from 35% to 61% of capacity. And additional storage gains have occurred during March, especially after recent storms.

“We’re up approximately 7.5 million acre feet in California storage since last year at this time, so already a significant gain in water supply and this snowpack is going to benefit those reservoirs, as opposed to melt in the spring,” said Brett Whitin, a hydrologist with the California Nevada River Forecast Center. “But it will be a challenge to manage all this snowpack. I mean, there’s been record snow and a lot of these rivers have limited channel capacity downstream, so getting that water out safely is going to be a challenge.”

To address these growing challenges, California has so far invested $8.6 billion to boost water supplies and storage, with another $327 million proposed to develop flood protection and drought resiliency projects. Government officials are also exploring ways to capture and store more water during storms to prepare for future droughts.

Over the last decade, California has seen extremes from both ends of the spectrum from lengthy droughts to severe flooding. Most recently, the state faced its 12th powerful, atmospheric river storm this week, continuing the onslaught of major weather whiplash after a yearslong, historic megadrought.

Scientists say human-caused climate change has increased the potential for this weather whiplash, where dramatic shifts in periods of drought and high rain and snow can occur more often, particularly in California.

Gottschalck, of the Climate Prediction Center, said the Western spigot of rain and snow will likely turn off come April.

“It does look like that will probably shut off as we go into our early part of April,” Gottschalck said. “And at that point, normal climatological precipitation, for much of California, goes toward zero quite quickly, so we do think there will be a break.”

Water officials in California say that while the record-high snowpack and nearly full reservoirs are good news for the state, snow measurements on April 1 — traditionally when California’s snowpack peaks and starts to melt — are considered the most important when it comes to forecasting the year’s water resources as well as the state of the drought. DWR plans to host its April snow survey on April 3 at Phillips Station, where officials expect further adjustments to water allocations.

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CNN Meteorologist Brandon Miller and Stephanie Elam contributed to this report.

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