The board of the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California issued a supply alert at a press conference last Tuesday, calling on businesses and residents throughout the region to voluntarily cut water usage and prepare for continued drought. The decision marks the first time in seven years that such an alert has been issued by the MWD.
MWD, which imports water from Northern California and the Colorado River, supplies water to 19 million people across six counties and is one of the largest water distributors in the U.S. The board says the MWD will continue to rely on water already stored in reserves for this year, but conservation efforts could help the supplies last longer.
“A major reason Metropolitan has sufficient water in reserve this year is because Southern Californians have maintained lower water use since the last drought,” MWD said in a prepared statement.
The water conservation alert was issued the day after U.S. officials declared the first-ever water shortage on the Colorado River—a key source of water for the LA area, including Malibu. In recent months, the largest reservoir on the Colorado River, Lake Mead, has continued to lose water at a worrisome rate. At a high point of 1,225 feet above sea level in 1983, the lake has now dropped to 1,073 feet—down 150 feet.
In its statement, the MWD called the Colorado River alert a “wake-up call.”
MWD spokespeople hoped voluntary water cutbacks would eliminate the need for more drastic actions in the future, which could include restricting water supplies. After a winter with very little rain, as well as the loss of snowpack due to fire, drought and climate change, reservoirs are shrinking and concerns about supplies are increasing, the statement described.
The problem is, no one knows how long the drought will last—or whether the entire region is experiencing a process of permanent “aridification,” as one Colorado River official described to the LA Times.
In July, California Governor Gavin Newsom called on all Californians to voluntarily cut back water use by 15 percent.
“If we enter another year of drought and—as you know, our water season starts Oct. 1—we’ll have likely more to say by the end of September as we enter potentially the third year of the current drought,” Newsom said on Aug. 17.
On July 26, the West Basin Municipal Water District’s board of directors decided to follow suit by activating the district’s Water Shortage Contingency Plan (WSCP), entering into Shortage Level 1, which encourages voluntary reductions in water use and conservation. This is the lowest of six levels.
West Basin is a water wholesaler, purchasing imported water from MWD and selling it to retail water suppliers including Malibu’s LA County Waterworks District 29.
Malibu’s elected representative to the West Basin, Scott Houston, said in a phone interview that the declaration of a Level 1 alert “allows our staff to activate and develop a drought communications plan to more heavily push out information to the public and beef up our outreach.
“It’s important because it reminds everyone to conserve water and take advantage of all our great rebate programs,” Houston continued. “Replacing turf is one of the best ways to save water in the residential sector, since it often accounts for 50 percent of household water usage. Just in the last Fiscal Year (2020-1), residents applied to replace 154,520 square feet of turf.”
The Aug. 17 update of U.S. Drought Monitor classified 98 percent of the West as abnormally dry or worse, and 88 percent of California as “extreme” or “exceptional”—the most severe designations. All of Malibu is either “extreme” or “exceptional” on the map.
The City of Malibu’s latest report on Live Fuel Moisture Levels in Santa Monica Mountains, dated Aug. 15, stated that average vegetation moisture was at 57 percent, which is below the critical level of 60 percent for increased fire danger (down from 62 percent on Aug. 1 and 65 percent July 15). A moisture level this low is not normally seen until September, according to the report. The testing site closest to Malibu had only 54 percent.
“Currently, the Santa Monica Mountains have the lowest fuel moisture levels of the four areas that the LA County Fire Department samples,” the report stated.