State and federal officials move forward plans and policies for water conservation, conveyance, and climate resilience.

By Michael G. Romey, Lucas I. Quass, John Detrich, Cody M. Kermanian, and Julie Miles

The winter of 2022-23 brought historic levels of precipitation to California after years of deep drought, dwindling reservoirs, and groundwater depletion. In the first quarter of 2023, most of the state received rainfall exceeding historic averages, with some areas experiencing 200%, or even 300% of average levels. According to the US Drought Monitor, the state is currently drought-free, although some regions are still considered abnormally dry. Despite heavy precipitation over the past year, California’s drought resilience remains in question, as critical infrastructure projects face staunch opposition and climate change increases the likelihood of extreme and prolonged droughts. Regulators and water managers had a busy 2023 as they grappled with persistently low groundwater levels, planned for additional water storage and conveyance, and continued to advance water conservation initiatives.

This blog post summarizes key actions taken by state and federal officials in 2023 with respect to California’s water supply and provides an outlook for 2024.

State Actions Affecting California Water Resources

California’s Drought Emergency Orders

In March 2023, Governor Newsom issued an executive order (Order) that lifted several components of Governor Newsom’s 2021 drought emergency orders. The Order withdrew reporting mandates for residential wells and agricultural water use; it also rescinded directives for local water agencies to execute their urban Water Contingency Shortage Plans and agricultural Drought Plans, as well as directives for agencies to expedite funding for drought relief projects. However, the Order indicated that the multi-year nature of the 2020-2022 drought (the three driest years on record) continues to have “immediate, significant impacts on communities across California with vulnerable water supplies.” Accordingly, it retained key elements of the state-wide drought emergency, including the ban on wasteful water uses, existing groundwater directives, emergency measures for drought-stricken watersheds like the Klamath and Colorado Rivers, and a state of emergency across all 58 counties to facilitate ongoing drought response and recovery.

State Water Project Allocations

In April 2023, the California Department of Water Resources (“DWR”) announced that the State Water Project, which is a key water source for California’s Central Valley, South Bay Area, and Southern California, would — for the first time since 2006 — meet 100% of all water allocations in 2023. This marks a major improvement from 2022 when the State Water Project met 0% of allocations for several months. Looking forward to 2024, DWR has issued an initial State Water Project allocation forecast of 10% of requested supplies, noting that California’s current water year was off to a “relatively dry start.”

Final EIR Released for Delta Conveyance Project

In December 2023, DWR approved the Delta Conveyance Project, also known as the Delta Tunnel, and certified the project’s Final Environmental Impact Report (EIR). The Delta Conveyance Project is a proposal for a new 44.6 mile-long tunnel to divert water from the Sacramento River, bypassing the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and directing it into existing State Water Project infrastructure. The project, which is supported by Governor Newsom, seeks to safeguard California’s water supply against the challenges posed by climate change, sea-level rise, earthquakes, and extreme weather fluctuations. However, the Delta Tunnel faces opposition from environmental groups due to concerns that it could disrupt the Delta’s ecological system, exacerbating the decline of native fish populations including Delta Smelt, Chinook Salmon, and Central Valley Steelhead. Having secured DWR’s approval, the project will move forward with numerous other federal and state compliance and permitting processes and will seek funding from participating water agencies.

SWRCB Emergency Regulations and Rulemaking

At the height of the recent drought, Governor Newsom directed the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) to enact emergency water conservation regulations. These regulations required urban water suppliers to activate Level 2 contingency plans, which prepare for a 10% to 20% water shortage and ban potable water use for irrigating non-functional turf at commercial, industrial, and institutional sites, with fines up to $500 per day for non-compliance. In May 2023, the SWRCB readopted emergency regulations to extend the non-functional turf watering ban, which reimposed the penalties in the original ban, but removed the mandate for urban water suppliers to implement Level 2 contingency plans.

The SWRCB is also advancing its “Making Conservation a California Way of Life” rulemaking initiative, which aims to establish tailored efficiency goals for urban retail water suppliers. These goals are designed to reflect the unique characteristics of each supplier’s service area, promoting locally appropriate conservation solutions. The rulemaking responds to 2018 legislation (AB 1668 and SB 606), mandating the SWRCB to establish efficiency standards that apply to urban retail water suppliers. According to the proposed regulation, suppliers will determine annual objectives using efficiency budgets for different urban water uses, and they may also account for variances for special uses or offer incentives for the use of recycled water. The notice of proposed rulemaking was issued on August 18, 2023, initiating a comment period and leading to a public hearing on October 4, 2023. Potential adoption of the regulation is slated for consideration in 2024.

Expedited Permitting for Groundwater Recharge Projects Utilizing Stormwater and Snowpack Runoff

Rain and floodwaters inundated tens of thousands of acres across California in 2023, and yet, DWR has explained that the state’s groundwater basins “remain seriously depleted despite the wet winter.” Groundwater basins, which account for more than 40% of the state’s water supply, generally take longer to recover from periods of extended drought than surface water reservoirs. Stormwater and snowpack runoff represent a unique opportunity for groundwater recharge, which was highlighted in several executive orders issued by Governor Newsom in early 2023. Most notably, Executive Order N-4-23 temporarily suspended certain regulations and restrictions otherwise applicable to flood diversions — including applications and permits for water rights — in order to enable water agencies and water users to more readily divert floodwater for groundwater recharge. Acting under these executive orders, the SWRCB streamlined the permitting process for temporary groundwater storage projects and authorized over 185,000 acre-feet in recharge projects.

New SWRCB Regulations for Converting Wastewater to Drinking Water

In December 2023, the SWRCB approved new regulations for converting municipal wastewater to drinking water. The regulations will apply to public water systems that propose wastewater recycling projects featuring direct potable reuse — a treatment method that relies on “immediate, multi-barrier treatment that can recycle waste water to drinking water standards in a matter of hours.” The SWRCB described direct potable reuse as an energy-efficient and climate-resilient water source and noted that the new standards have been vetted by an expert panel of engineers and scientists to ensure that they are protective of public health. The regulations are expected to be finalized by the Office of Administrative Law in 2024, following which, systems will be able to submit project applications to the SWRCB for review.

Federal Actions Affecting California Water Resources

Central Valley Project Allocations

In April 2023, the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) announced an increase in the Central Valley Project’s 2023 water supply allocation from 80% to 100% for both north- and south-of-delta contractors. The Central Valley Project, which transports water from Shasta Lake in Northern California to the southern San Joaquin Valley, stores and distributes approximately 20% of California’s developed water. Reclamation’s announcement contrasts sharply with its 2022 allocations, under which irrigation water service contractors received 0% of their total contract allocations, and municipal and industrial water service contractors were limited to the minimum supply necessary for public health and safety.

Lower Colorado River Basin Conservation Efforts

Although water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell improved somewhat in 2023, the combined storage of both reservoirs remains at only 36% of capacity, necessitating ongoing conservation efforts. In May 2023, the Lower Division states (Arizona, California, and Nevada) committed to a historic proposal that will conserve at least an additional 3 million acre-feet of Colorado River Water in the Lower Basin by the end of 2026. Following this proposal, Reclamation released a Revised Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (Revised Draft SEIS) for near-term Colorado River operations. The Revised Draft SEIS includes updated hydrological modeling indicating a substantial reduction in the risk of critical water levels at Lake Powell and Lake Mead due to the Lower Basin states’ commitments and recent hydrological changes.

Efforts to implement these conservation commitments are ongoing. In December 2023, the Biden-Harris administration announced a series of agreements with the Coachella Valley Water District, the Quechan Indian Tribe, and other public water agencies to conserve over 643,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead through 2025, involving nearly $295 million in federal funding for water conservation and efficiency projects and environmental protection efforts. These agreements come on the heels of a similar agreement between the federal government and the Imperial Irrigation District to conserve approximately 100,000 acre-feet of water in 2023.

What to Watch in 2024

Heading into 2024, California’s long-term water security remains in question, with critical infrastructure projects and regulations still pending and climate change heightening the potential of extended drought. With additional conservation measures yet to take effect, the impact on water users also remains uncertain.  

As discussed above, the Delta Conveyance Project has cleared a major hurdle. If built, the project could enhance water reliability during future dry periods by capturing excess runoff and improving conveyance. Despite completing environmental review this year, the project has encountered resistance from environmental groups that may result in litigation. Further, the project must still secure essential funding from public water agencies.

Separately, SWRCB is on track to finalize its conservation regulations, and Reclamation aims to boost conservation efforts for the Colorado River Basin. These initiatives will require water suppliers to identify strategies for increased water efficiency. However, uncertainty remains regarding the impact on water users, both in terms of consumption and cost, as suppliers begin to pinpoint specific measures and projects to implement in response to these developments. 

Adding to the above uncertainty regarding the proposed infrastructure projects and changes in the regulatory landscape, are the potential effects of El Niño and climate change. The remainder of California’s winter season warrants close observation in light of early predictions that the 2023 El Niño event may continue through mid-2024, potentially resulting in another year of substantial rainfall for the state.