At the end of 2022 and start of 2023, California endured three weeks of nine atmospheric rivers . The state just experienced a flood emergency while still in an active drought emergency, marking a new period of climate whiplash and underscoring California’s position on the front lines of climate change.
the state is taking advantage of the runoff to raise storage above and below ground. California has committed more than $8.6 billion to build water resilience in the last two budgets. The Governor’s 2023-24 budget proposal includes an additional $202 million for flood protection.
It’s important to point out that these storms have not ended the drought. While the winter season has started impressively, an important milestone will be the April 1 snow survey, when the snowpack has historically been at its highest. Snow has melted early over the last few years, and some expected runoff didn’t appear in the reservoirs due to extremely dry soils. Conditions may yet change dramatically, as we saw last winter. October and December 2022 brought powerful storms, but the bounty of those storms was offset by weather in January, February, and March that was the driest for those months on record.
This is a time for cautious optimism, as uncertainty remains about what the remainder of the season may bring. We all must continue to adopt conservation as a way of life in California as overall trends show a hotter and drier climate going forward.
Here’s how the state is taking action:
- We’re giving agencies the tools they need to tackle the drought emergency.
- We’re addressing long-standing water challenges.
- And we’re securing vital and limited water supplies to sustain our state into the future.
5 ways California is storing water from winter storms
California is taking urgent action to protect communities from climate-driven extremes in weather and expand the state’s capacity to capture storm runoff in wet years.
California is boosting water supplies through groundwater recharge, stormwater capture, reservoir storage, water conveyance improvements and ambitious targets to build water resilience.
State Water Board re-ups ban on wasteful water uses
The week of December 5, 2022, the State Water Resources Control Board readopted an emergency regulation that bolsters California’s conservation efforts by prohibiting wasteful water practices like watering lawns when it rains.
The regulation was originally adopted in January 2022 and is now extended until January 2024 as drought conditions continue throughout the state. It applies to all water users including individuals, businesses and public agencies, and can be enforced through warning letters, water audits or fines.
New standards to reduce water loss adopted
On November 2, 2022, the State Water Resources Control Board adopted new performance standards for urban retail water suppliers—the utilities that provide water to people in California cities—that require suppliers to monitor and reduce leakage in their distribution systems.
The board estimates the new standards will save about 88,000 acre-feet of water per year, or enough to supply over 260,000 households.
State making it cheaper to replace your lawn
On September 28, 2022, Governor Gavin Newsom signed legislation that helps Californians get more money to replace their lawns with drought-resistant plants and landscaping.
The legislation exempts local rebates for turf replacement from state income tax, ensuring more dollars can be spent on transforming grass lawns into water-wise yards.
Governor announces water strategy for California
On August 11, 2022, Governor Gavin Newsom announced California’s latest actions to increase water supply and adapt to more extreme weather patterns caused by climate change.
The actions, outlined in a strategy document “California’s Water Supply Strategy, Adapting to a Hotter, Drier Future,” call for investing in new sources of water supply, accelerating projects and modernizing how the state manages water through new technology.
New emergency water conservation regulation
On May 24, 2022, the State Water Board adopted an emergency water conservation regulation that will ensure more aggressive conservation by local water agencies. It went into effect on June 10.
The new regulation bans irrigating turf at commercial, industrial, and institutional properties, including common areas managed by HOAs. The ban does not include watering turf used for recreation or other community purposes, water used at residences or water to maintain trees. The regulation also requires all urban water suppliers to move to Level 2 of their Water Shortage Contingency Plans.
Governor moves to bolster conservation efforts
On March 28, 2022, Governor Gavin Newsom took steps to drive water conservation at the local level.
He called on local water suppliers to move to Level 2 of their Water Shortage Contingency Plans, requiring locally-appropriate actions that will conserve water across all sectors, and he directed the State Water Resources Control Board to consider a ban on the watering of decorative grass at businesses and institutions.
Water waste in landscaping prohibited
On January 4, 2022, the State Water Board adopted new regulations to prohibit water waste in response to the ongoing drought emergency. They went into effect January 18, 2022.
For at least one year, Californians are prohibited from using drinking water for activities such as filling decorative fountains/ponds, washing sidewalks and driveways, watering lawns during and right after rain, and using hoses without automatic shutoff nozzles.
Declaring drought emergency statewide
On October 19, 2021, the Governor expanded the drought emergency proclamation statewide to include 8 remaining counties: Imperial, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Francisco, and Ventura.
He re-emphasized that Californians should save water by voluntarily reducing their consumption by 15%. He empowered the Water Board to prohibit wasteful uses of potable water such as washing sidewalks or driveways.
Funding for drought resilience
On September 23, 2021, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a package of climate action bills that include $5.2 billion for drought response and long-term water resilience.
The measures will secure and expand water supplies, support drinking water and wastewater infrastructure with a focus on small and disadvantaged communities, improve water supply security and quality, and support wildlife and habitat restoration.
Previously, on July 28, 2021, Governor Newsom signed AB 148, which allows state agencies to expedite funding for areas experiencing drought.
Call for voluntary water conservation
On July 8, 2021, amid deepening drought and record-breaking temperatures throughout the West, the Governor called on Californians to voluntarily reduce water use by 15% to protect water reserves if drought conditions continue and help maintain critical flows for fish and wildlife wherever possible.
The Governor also expanded his previous drought emergency proclamation to include nine additional counties where drought effects are increasingly severe: Inyo, Marin, Mono, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, San Mateo, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz. To date, 50 of California 58 counties have declared drought emergencies.
Expanded drought emergency
On May 10, 2021, the Governor expanded the drought emergency proclamation to include new areas. It now includes counties in the Klamath River, Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and Tulare Lake Watershed. This action was necessary to protect public health, safety, and the environment. In total, the drought state of emergency now covers 41 counties, where 30% of the state’s population lives.
Governor Newsom also proposed a $5.1 billion package of investments for drought response and water resilience. This package would:
- Address immediate emergency needs
- Build regional capacity to endure drought, and
- Safeguard water supplies for communities, the economy and the environment.
Proclaimed drought emergency
On April 21, 2021, Governor Newsom proclaimed a drought emergency. This lets the state respond to water supply shortfalls where conditions are extremely dry. It covered the Russian River Watershed of Sonoma and Mendocino counties.
Supported local and regional efforts
In April 2019, Governor Newsom ordered state agencies to prepare a Water Resilience Portfolio. This helps California’s diverse regions endure drought, flood, and changing precipitation patterns. The state released the implementation of the Portfolio in July 2020. It supports local and regional efforts to meet community, economic, and environmental needs in the face of climate change.
Convened interagency taskforce
The Governor has convened a broad team from many agencies to prepare for drought. This helps the state quickly protect communities, economic activity, and the natural environment.
The Drought Resilience Taskforce reports to the Governor’s Office. It includes the following departments and agencies:
- California Department of Food and Agriculture
- California Environmental Protection Agency
- California Health and Human Services Agency
- California Labor and Workforce Development Agency
- California Natural Resources Agency
- California Public Utilities Commission
- Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development
- Governor’s Office of Emergency Services
- Governor’s Office of Planning and Research
The Taskforce meets regularly to coordinate and direct state response to the drought. It engages key partners to plan, coordinate, and collaborate on necessary drought-related actions. Those partners include:
- Federal, tribal and local governments
- Local water agencies and irrigation districts
- Agriculture producers and associations
- Community-based organizations and environmental justice groups, and
- Environmental conservation organizations and conservancies.
Regional drought response
See these pages from the California Water Board to learn about efforts in your region.
- North Coast
- Russian River Watershed
- Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Watershed
- Scott and Shasta River Watersheds
Commitment to human right to water and water equity
The California Water Code establishes that every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water for adequate consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes. Previous droughts, and the COVID-19 public health crisis, have highlighted existing inequities in our State when it comes to access to clean and affordable water.
Our people and economy depend upon reliable supplies of water. Reliability is challenged by population and economic growth and climate-driven variability. We must prioritize securing adequate water supplies for an uncertain future—and start fulfilling the human right to water for the more than one million Californians who currently lack safe drinking water supplies.
Here are the steps California is taking:
- Requiring state agencies to consider the human right to water principle when setting policies and regulations.
- Implementing the Safe and Affordable Drinking Act of 2019
- Directing $52 million in Proposition 1 grant funds since 2016 to Tribal and underserved communities for the development of regional projects that address water challenges, including drought
- Developing the Rural Community Explorer Tool to support drought resilience planning in rural communities
Key improvements since 2016
Since our last major drought (2012-16), California is much less vulnerable to drought. State agencies provided key lessons in a comprehensive report.
- Requiring local agencies to bring overdrafted groundwater basins into sustainable conditions by 2042. This is called the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA).
- Establishing new standards for indoor, outdoor, and industrial use of water.
- Funding solutions for disadvantaged communities lacking access to safe drinking water.
- Increasing the frequency of water use reporting.
- Ordering failing public water systems to consolidate with better-run systems.
- Tightening landscape efficiency standards for new developments.
- Analyzing the drought risk of thousands of water suppliers. Gathering stakeholder recommendations on drought contingency plans.
- Assessing failing or at-risk water systems across the state. Compiling this in a first-ever comprehensive needs assessment.