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Climate and Environment

Why Are Some Cities Not Affected By The New Drought Restrictions?

Two tiny figures walk along a dusty dirty road amid a desert landscape, with mountains towering in the distance. Only a light dusting of snow is visible on the mountaintops.
Lightly snow-capped Sierra Nevada Mountains on February 20, 2022 near Lone Pine, California. Following record breaking snowfall in December, January, February and March were California’s driest ever recorded, sparking drought restrictions.
(Mario Tama
Getty Images)
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Starting June 1st, six million southern Californians won’t be able to water their lawns more than once a week or water agencies will have to find other ways to get water use down to about 80 gallons per day per person (More on that here).

But that’s not the case for 14 cities in the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s service area that are exempt from the new drought restrictions.

Being exempt from this mandate doesn’t mean these cities aren’t under any water restrictions. In March, Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order to require all southern California water agencies to move to more stringent water conservation tactics. Many cities, including L.A. had already made stricter conservation rules permanent after the last drought in 2015 or before. You should be able to find the restrictions in your area on your city’s website or by calling the public works department.

The newest restrictions from the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) only apply to cities that get most of their water from the State Water Project, which pipes water to the Southland from reservoirs in Northern California. That area has seen extreme drought the past few years.

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Exempt cities have access to other water sources, whether that’s local groundwater, recycled water, stormwater capture, and, in the case of many exempt cities, the Colorado River.

Beverly Hills, for example, gets 20% to 25% of its water from local groundwater and the rest is from the Colorado River, according to the city’s Public Works director Shana Epstein. Compton, Anaheim, Burbank, Fullerton, Glendale, Long Beach, Pasadena, San Marino, Santa Ana, Santa Monica and Torrance also all have access to Colorado River water.

“We're in a portion of the system that has a lot more flexibility,” Epstein said.

Here’s the list of exempt cities:

  • Anaheim
  • Beverly Hills
  • Burbank
  • Compton
  • Fullerton
  • Glendale
  • Irvine
  • Long Beach
  • Malibu
  • Pasadena
  • Riverside
  • San Marino
  • Santa Ana
  • Santa Monica
  • Torrance
A map of gradient orange areas in LA County served by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
Map of areas that depend on the State Water Project. The Metropolitan Water District its member agencies in the State Water Project-dependent areas to restrict outdoor watering to just one day a week, or the equivalent.
(Metropolitan Water District of Southern California

Why Some Cities Have Access To The Colorado River When Others Don’t

A big reason why these cities have access to the Colorado River when other cities don’t comes down to the history of MWD and its physical infrastructure. 13 cities were served by MWD when it was first established in the 1930s. All of the original cities, except L.A., are exempt from the current water restrictions.

That’s because the MWD was first built on pipelines from the Colorado River and that original infrastructure still shapes the region’s water resilience today.

As southern California boomed during the early 20th century, flooding and water security became top issues of concern. It soon became clear that local supplies wouldn’t meet demand.

So L.A. and nearby cities turned to the snowmelt of the Sierra Nevada mountains—that led to the construction of what’s now called the L.A. Aqueduct (If you’re a movie aficionado, you might know that the film noir classic “Chinatown” is based on the story of the water rights grab that allowed the aqueduct).

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Since 2016, the aqueduct has supplied about 48% of L.A.’s water needs. Most of the rest of L.A.’s water comes from the State Water Project through MWD, according to the L.A. Department of Water and Power (LADWP).

But back then, that aqueduct still wasn’t enough for the growing metropolis, so L.A. and nearby cities turned east, towards the Colorado River. The federal government built a dam to control the desert river’s violent flooding, and to conserve water for the rapidly urbanizing West.

They built pipelines to “thirteen favored cities” (read: thirsty and growing) who would be “forever protected against the scorching menace of Man’s most deadly foe,” as Don J. Kinsey, MWD’s first general manager’s assistant, described drought in 1938. That was the birth of MWD.

As L.A. grew even more, the State Water Project was developed, pumping water from the San Francisco Bay area to San Diego—the MWD now distributes that supply as well.

Today, that original pipeline infrastructure still serves those 13 cities—Anaheim, Beverly Hills, Burbank, Compton, Fullerton, Glendale, Long Beach, Pasadena, San Marino, Santa Ana, Santa Monica, Torrance and L.A (though L.A. is still included in the new restrictions). But nowadays, the Colorado River isn’t as “abundant” or “assured” as Kinsey wrote that it was all those years ago.

Should Water Restrictions Be Stricter For Colorado River Users?

MWD operates a massive water distribution system that serves 19 million people in southern California. Some of their pipelines can distribute only State Water Project water or only Colorado River water, according to the agency. These supplies are coming from very different places, so the engineering feat of moving that amount of water depends on where and how the distribution pipes are connected to one another and whether that water can be moved by gravity or needs to be pumped.

That’s why it’s not so simple as just plugging a city into the Colorado River supply—though MWD has implemented infrastructure changes to push Colorado River supplies to communities where it hasn’t previously been available, according to a statement from the agency.

There’s another level of complexity: The Colorado River is governed by a convoluted set of laws and agreements between seven states—California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado—as well as Mexico. In short, managing the river’s water supplies is complicated and it’s not so simple as just calling for more urban conservation measures.

In mid-March, water officials cut State Water Project allocations from 15% to 5%, which spurred water restrictions across the state. The Colorado River isn’t under as stringent restrictions, so cities that depend on it can continue pumping water. But many water experts worry the river is being over-allocated.

“It's not like we can say, ‘well, the State Water Project is not doing so well, but look at the Colorado, that's fine,’” said Kurt Schwabe, an environmental economics and policy professor at UC Riverside. “That is not the case; it seems like if there's ever a time to play it a bit safer, now is the time.”

The Colorado river has been stretched thin by long-running drought. Its main reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, are at historically low levels. In an unprecedented move on Tuesday, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced it won't release a large amount of water from Lake Powell this year in order to maintain enough water in the reservoir to keep a hydropower plant going.

In wet years, MWD distributes as much State Water Project as possible because it doesn’t have as many places to store the water. That means if it’s not used, it goes to the ocean. In wet years, the agency distributes less Colorado River water, instead conserving it in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Then it turns to those supplies in dry years. But unprecedented drought the last three years has hurt that strategy. Still, the agency says it has enough Colorado River supplies—for now.

“While the Colorado River remains in deep drought conditions, Metropolitan has over the past decade stored significant water supplies in Lake Mead, thanks to increased water-efficiency among Southern Californians, partnerships with the agricultural community, and our ability to store water during wet years in California,” the agency emailed LAist. “We started this year with nearly 1.3 million acre-feet of water stored in Lake Mead…We are relying on some of those supplies during the historic California drought.”

A map of Metropolitan Water District of Southern California's operations during non-drought years.
A map of Metropolitan Water District of Southern California's distributions operations during non-drought years.
(Metropolitan Water District of Southern California
An October 2021 map of the Metropolitan Water District's distribution operations during drought years.
A map of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California's distribution operations during drought years.
(Courtesy of Metropolitan Water District of Southern California

The agency said they expect to end the year with about 1 million acre-feet of stored water—that’s about enough water to serve the needs of more than 3 million southern Californian households. But in the face of a hotter and drier future, current water conservation tactics may not be enough.

“There is significant concern about ‘are we doing enough right now,’ given where our major storage levels are and given this new climate that we're under," said Schwabe. “The climate is changing so fast that I think we certainly have gotten caught off guard in terms of our modeling and our understanding of the potential intensity of the droughts that we're confronting now.”

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