Drought, Water Tied to California’s History

During a January rain storm, water was pouring off the steps at Palisades Elementary, along Swarthmore Avenue.


With the first major rainfall of the year in Southern California, usually in the winter, everyone goes a little crazy.

Car crashes litter the freeways, youth sports games are canceled, and everyone rushes to get home, finally having a legitimate reason to make hot chocolate and watch a movie during a weeknight.

SoCal residents know not to go in the ocean after the first rain. They know to turn off the faucet while brushing teeth; limit the number of baths and the time spent in the shower; plant drought resistant plants; and only water plants/lawns during early mornings or late at night on certain days of the week.

And children since the time they are little, are taught how to limit water usage because it seems were always in a drought – this year, last year, next year, every year, it seems.

Some say current problems are climate change. However, if you look at the annual rainfall in SoCal, the average has been constant since 1877 the first year on record. There is a pattern, almost every 30 years there is a drought 1900,1925,1960,1990 and now.

Increased population, increased high-water crop production, and 100-year-old plan for water distribution complicate the problem.

The first water agreement for the Southwestern States, The Colorado River Compact, was approved in November 1922 by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who later became president.

That compact was signed by seven states and separated in into an upper and lower division.

The upper division is Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, and the lower division is Arizona, California, and Nevada.

The upper division is defined as any area where water enters or leaves the Colorado River above Lees Ferry, which is in Northern Arizona – and located downstream from Lake Powell. The lower basin is below Lees Ferry.

Both the upper and lower basin are allotted to the use of 7,500,000-acre feet of water per annum (AF). This is a very important number because it is the foundation which all other pertinent details are derived.

The upper basin is not allowed to withhold water, and the lower basin shall not require the delivery of water that cannot be readably used.

Then, because the river flows through Mexico, if there is a shortage on the Mexican side, the upper and lower must decrease the amount taken to make sure there is enough water exiting to the Pacific Ocean.

The Boulder Canyon Project Act of 1928 further defined the amount each lower basin state would receive. California is allotted 4,400,000AF, Arizona is 2,800,000AF, and Nevada is 300,000AF.

To determine that amount, there are two metrics: water levels of Lake Mead and Lake Powell, and secondly the average flow of the river.

But Lake Mead’s water level is the sole determiner for the lower basin. Lake Mead’s water level as of June 8, 2022, was 1,046 ft. Last June it was 1,071 ft.

According to the agreement, once the water level drops below 1,090 ft, Nevada and Arizona must scale water intake back.

When the water level drops below 1,045 ft. California will have to cut back by 4.5%.

Cutbacks are put into effect on January 1, based on estimated water levels of Lake Mead. This means that starting next year, unless there is a massive inflex of water, Californians will more than likely start to see price hikes.

Lake Mead water levels are low.

The 1944 Water Treaty with Mexico has gone through multiple revisions but the most up to date is MIN 323, which was updated in 2017. Mexico is to receive 1,500,000AF, when the water level of lake Mead is above 1,090ft.

But if the level at Lake Mead continues at its current level, Mexico will have to decrease its amount by 34,000AF. This is the lowest level lake Mead has seen since the construction of the Hoover Dam.

Water usage has also increased in the last 100 years, because Los Angeles population went from 600,000 to 12,500,000. Las Vegas went from less than 3,000 to 650,000 people. Phoenix’s population went from 50,000 to 4,600,000.

A pilot program was launched by the states to voluntarily conserve water in 2014, and in 2017 U.S. Congress passed funding for those measures.

In the 2020 “Review of the Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortage and Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead” it was noted that “During a year when the Secretary of the Interior has determined a Shortage Condition, the Secretary shall deliver Developed Shortage Supply available in a Contractor’s DSS Account at the request of the Contractor.”

That means the Department of the Interior can approve or disapprove a project.

The contractor will have to fill out a DSS basically saying what the water is used for and any pertinent details evolving water usage. This gives the Secretary absolute power over all planned projects involving water.

The Central Valley of California, which is largely agricultural, consumes 80 percent of California’s available water. In the recent years the Valley has been shrinking, in some places more than 11 ft. as ground water is used for irrigation, making outside water even more valuable.

With the recent legalization of marijuana many people may not have realized an unseen consequence: this is a plant that requires a lot of water.

Over the past couple of years, the almonds have been singled out as one of the highest water users of all California’s crops.

California produces about 80% the world’s supply of almonds. It takes about one gallon for one almond or about 25 gallons for an ounce of almonds. Marijuana plants taking about 34 gallons of water to produce an ounce of product.

With Lake Mead at its lowest levels, the shrinking Central valley, persistent drought and growing populations, it may be time to rethink water in California – and its 100 years of dependence on the Colorado River.

It might be time to prioritize less water-dependent crops. Time for California to add a desalinization plant to help offset the water needs, and time to see if water reclamation could be upgraded and improved to fit California’s needs.

Almond trees are being irrigated.
Photo: Crop Science Society of America

(In “East of Eden” John Steinbeck wrote “And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.”)


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5 Responses to Drought, Water Tied to California’s History

  1. Lynn Miller Hylen says:

    Congratulations to the new Circling the News reporter Reece Pascoe!!!

  2. M says:

    Excellent reporting. We MUST take this long drought and water shortage serious. Northern California has had ‘brown’ grass for years and served water at restaurants only if asked for.
    California’s water shortage is everyone’s problem and we all need to work together and do our share on conserving our water supply. Please do not waste water.

  3. Patty Adelmann says:

    Such a great article! Finally! A well-researched logical look at water in California.
    Thank-you. Thank-you. Thank-you!!

    Such a relief to see logic and common sense.

    When I came of age in Los Angeles (in the 1970s) – as we suffered the usual drought – and the LA Times ran a series of articles on how to repurpose the LA river. There were plans (daydreams) to turn the dry LA river basin into parking lots, tennis courts, etc.
    One day…floods came and people actually drowned in the once dry river. I learned an important lesson.

  4. Linda Kelley says:

    Enjoying Reece’s contributions to CTN!!

  5. Wow! what an interesting article. Alot of research went into this information that you presented. Very thought provoking. Thank you. I always enjoy reading Circling the news.

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