The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is no longer imposing emergency restrictions on water use for more than 7 million people after winter storms increased water supplies, the district said in a news release.
The restriction had gone into effect in June 2022 and allowed residents only one day a week of outdoor watering for parts of Los Angeles, Ventura and San Bernardino counties. Last summer, California saw the most severe drought in its 126-year history on record, and the state’s reservoirs reached extremely low levels.
But recent storms have allowed the water district to lift those restrictions.
California has been hit this winter by 11 separate “atmospheric rivers,” the term for the long, narrow bands of moisture that can carry saturated air thousands of miles like a fire hose. One such system earlier in the week broke daily rainfall records in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Santa Maria and caused flooding and mudslides across the state.
Two atmospheric rivers hit California last week and led to “broad reductions in drought coverage and intensity,” according to the latest US Drought Monitor released Thursday morning.
The water district’s Board of Directors decided to lift the restrictions at a meeting Tuesday due to “improvements in the availability of State Water Project supplies,” the release said.
However, the agency noted that storage reserves are “depleted” and that the region’s other water source, the Colorado River, still faces significant challenges.
“Southern California remains in a water deficit,” said Tracy Quinn, a water district board member and chair of the district’s One Water and Stewardship Committee. “The more efficiently we all use water today, the more we can keep in storage for a future dry year. And as we face the climate crisis, dry conditions could return next year.”
The water district asked residents to continue using “water as efficiently as possible” to refill storage and help prepare for any resource cuts from the Colorado River.
When the district announced its restrictions last year, community advocates criticized the decision as misguided, noting that the biggest water users are not families watering their lawns, but agriculture and fracking.
Amanda Starbuck, director of research for the nonprofit environmental group Food & Water Watch, told CNN at the time that reducing domestic water use is like telling people that recycling could save the planet. While it’s a meaningful act, he said, it’s not going to make a dent in the crisis overall.
“It’s also a bit of an understatement to blame residential use for these crises,” Starbuck said. “It’s just a small part of the total consumption. It’s a much bigger problem and we really need to start bringing in these big industries that are boiling water during this dry season.”
Just a year ago, the entire state was in 100% drought due to a dire lack of rainfall and higher evaporation rates from increasingly warmer temperatures. But after an incredible series of winter storms, California’s state snowpack is the largest in decades.
Snow accumulation in the California Sierra is 177 percent of normal for the season, Department of Water Resources officials said after taking their monthly count earlier this month. Statewide, the snowpack is averaging 190% of normal for the date — a significant boost after back-to-back storms.
The Snowpack in the Sierra Nevada is critical because it acts as a natural reservoir and accounts for 30% of California’s freshwater supply in an average year. The recent record-breaking three-week deluge has helped replenish drought-stricken areas of the state, particularly Southern California.
Additionally, California’s severe drought has halved since last week, now covering just 8 percent of the state, according to the drought monitor. Just over a third of the state remains in some level of drought, the lowest amount in nearly three years.
Torrential rain, along with lower-elevation snowmelt and dam breaks, caused water to rise significantly along several waterways in California’s Central Valley last week.
California reservoirs have benefited from the wet pattern in recent months, with the drought monitor noting that “storage at the end of February was 96% of the historical average for this time of year.”
Drought monitoring indicated that more relief could appear in next week’s update. “Precipitation spread across southern California after the end of the drought watch period and will be reflected in next week’s assessment,” the watch said.
However, the state faces an acidic groundwater shortage, upon which many of California’s rural communities rely. Experts previously told CNN that it will eventually take many wet winters for California and the rest of the West to recover from what scientists said is a long-term drying trend.