Two Of California’s Critical Water Supplies Are Already Dangerously Low. What’s Next?

Shasta Dam at Shasta Lake in California
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Written by Susan Olayode

Published: August 6, 2022

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It is August, and California’s largest reservoirs – Oroville and Shasta Lake – are at the lowest levels they’ve been in years. Climate change contributed to a multi-year drought that is sweeping across Western America. California’s reservoirs and dams have suffered the most from the drought, and experts are skeptical if there’s enough water to last the rest of summer.

Concerning Water Levels of Lake Oroville and Shasta

Recent reports from the Drought monitor place Oroville and Shasta lake reservoirs at “critically low levels” during months of the year when they should be nearly full. Shasta Lake is at 40% of its total capacity, while Lake Oroville is at 55%. Yet, both lakes provide most of California’s water. 

Shasta Lake alone is at the center of California’s Central Valley Project and is connected to 19 dams, reservoirs, and 500 miles of canals. Meanwhile, Lake Oroville is at the heart of California’s state water project. It provides water to 27 million residents and 750,000 acres of farmland.

What do the low reservoir levels mean for businesses and residents?

The low water levels mean a hard summer and autumn for all residents and businesses. According to numerous sources, California is experiencing the worst drought the state has seen in over 1,200 years. As a result, the state-run Department of Water Resources announced that contractors would only receive 5% of their requested water supply. 

The federal project also stated that no one in the agricultural belt would receive water this summer. Farmers will have to fallow their fields this year or rely on drying wells and underwater reserves.

Local Wild and Aquatic Life are Also in Danger

Since June 1, the residents of Southern California have been facing some of the harshest water restrictions in the state’s history. And the local aquatic life is not safe either. The government has installed temporary chilling units at the Shasta Dam to protect fish like the winter-run Chinook Salmon.

Water demand will only rise as heatwaves sweep over most of the West. As a result, farmers, local businesses, and homeowners might face real danger.

So, what is anybody doing about it? 

California Water Shortage Solutions

California has settled on a multi-pronged approach to dealing with the current drought crisis sweeping the state.

New Infrastructure to Combat the Drought

In 2020, the BlueGreen Alliance requested to invest $105 billion into the water infrastructures over the next 10 years to combat water wastage and improve the overall quality of local drinking water. The project suggested investing in:

  1. Building new reservoirs 
  2. Desalination plants for towns with no access to groundwater
  3. Repair broken infrastructure
  4. Bring clean water to communities outside America
  5. Create new jobs

Century-old pipes around America leak over $7 billion of clean drinking water every year. That kind of water could change the life of most Californians and revitalize the local farming industry.

Jobs and new opportunities will also come from the projects. Thirty thousand jobs will be available for every billion spent.

The drive should also improve the overall U.S. water drinking grade. The American Society of Civil Engineers awarded it a D+ for safety recently. Getting it back up to a healthy grade will make tap water safe for drinking.

Future Water Projects to Alleviate Drought

The bipartisan infrastructure bill recently passed in the U.S. Senate will also help California in the coming years. $8.3 billion has been allocated to Western water infrastructure out of the $55 billion raised. Judging by the numbers, it’s the largest investment in drinking water in U.S. history.

Better Management of Available Resources

Most water projects and investments take years to affect real change, but good management can help California today. According to the Drought Monitor, the water scarcity problem extends across the western half of the United States. However, better laws and policies can save businesses, lower water consumption, and reduce the pressure on other states.

Samuel Sandoval Solis, a professional in water resources and planning from the UC Davis Center of Watershed Sciences, thinks that management is a more realistic short time solution. California’s residents showcased that they were willing to work with the government during the last drought. Getting them onboard for this one shouldn’t be difficult. Simple water-saving measures like using low-flow showers and toilets, watering their lawns less, and paying water fines can make a real difference. 

California Residential Water Usage vs. Agriculture 

Industrial water use, however, remains the largest obstacle to water management in California. Large corporations are slow to adopt water-efficient practices; even when they do, a thousand more companies use water without caring for smaller communities.

Farms that grow water-hungry plants like avocados and tomatoes, as well as oil wells, are the most guilty local businesses. But unfortunately, the excessive use also threatens the local wildlife and fish that depend on the rivers and lakes. It’s estimated that about 80% of the state’s water supply goes to agriculture, and the remaining 20% to the local population.

Water Conservation should take priority

Kelsey Hinton, the communication director of Community Water Center, told CNN in an interview that corporate water abuse has to be addressed, or nothing else matters. Water-saving practices are four times as effective when large organizations and businesses do them. Since agriculture uses far more water than residential users, small changes in a large organization can make a huge difference.

She thinks urban communities that rely on state reservoirs don’t understand how bad the drought can get. They might be forced to buy water for as much as 45 cents per gallon from trucks and drink out of water bottles if the reservoirs empty.

Practical Managerial Tips to Save Water in California

  1. Water conservation should be a habit
  2. Enforce water wastage fines

Water conservation should be a habit

Edward Ortiz, a spokesperson for the National State Water Resources Control board, told CNN in March that water conservation practices should be a way of life for Californians. They should strive to save water regardless of the season.

Water wastage fines

Water fines are rarely enforced in California, but they could be the key to reducing water use. The water departments across the state can technically fine people for up to $500, but they rarely go that far.

Revamping the penalty system can encourage people to be more responsible while generating additional revenue for the local department. 

How much rain is needed to get California out of the drought?

According to a statement from DWR and the United States Geological Survey in January 2022, California needs about 140% of precipitation to get out of the current drought. In the coming year, California might need less precipitation and snowfall, but more than 100% is a healthy surplus that allows the state to build up a surplus for the coming years. 


The drought is not just limited to California. The West is having a hard summer, and droughts and floods will become an even bigger problem as the seasons get harsher. 

As of writing, various state-owned and free organizations like State Water Resources Control Board, Drought Monitor, and Community Water Center are studying climate change and its effects on local weather and the rest of the West.

No easy solutions are forthcoming, especially from the managerial side, but Lawmakers and dedicated departments can develop workable solutions.

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