Last month's wet winter storms led California officials on Thursday to announce they'll release more water than initially planned from state storage to local agencies that provide water for 27 million people and vast swaths of farmland.
The Department of Water Resources now plans to give water districts 15% of what they've requested for 2022. That's up from last month, when the state said it would supply 0% of requested water beyond what was needed for necessities such as drinking and bathing. It was the first time ever the state issued an initial water allocation of nothing.
State officials stressed California's drought is far from over and urged people to keep conserving water. But December storms that dumped heavy snow in the mountains and partially refilled parched reservoirs have provided some relief from what had been an exceptionally dry year.
Still, the state hasn't seen a major storm yet this month, and most state reservoirs remain below their historic averages. The U.S. Drought Monitor shows much of California remains in severe drought.
“Dry conditions have already returned in January. Californians must continue to conserve as the state plans for a third dry year,” Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth said in a statement.
California stores and conveys water across the state through a vast network of reservoirs, dams and canals known as the State Water Project. It works alongside the federally run Central Valley Project to move water primarily from the state's wetter northern region to the drier south.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has asked for people to voluntarily use 15% less water than last year. Meanwhile, emergency statewide restrictions on outdoor water use took effect Tuesday, including a ban on watering lawns for 48 hours after rain. Violators can be fined up to $500 per day, though state water officials say enforcement will primarily be left to local water agencies.
Otherwise, what the increased allocation will mean for individual households and farms will largely depend on local water agencies, which have the power to set their own limits on water use.
The winter storms brought significant snowfall to the Sierra Nevada and other California mountains. A strong snowpack is critical for the state's spring water outlook, because when the snow melts it runs down into streams and boosts the state's water supply.
At the winter's first snow measurement in late December, the snow held 160% of the water it normally does at that time of year. But precipitation must keep falling through January, February and March to ensure strong supplies for the spring.