As climate-change-fueled drought worsens, California issues water restrictions for millions of residents

Officials in California, now in its third year of drought that scientists have linked to climate change, have issued unprecedented water restrictions for millions of residents.

In the southern part of the state, where the start of 2022 was the driest in recorded history and average temperatures continue to rise at a faster pace than other parts of the country, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) has issued restrictions on roughly 6 million customers. The cutback, which begins on June 1, prohibits residents from watering lawns and plants more than one day per week.

“We are seeing conditions unlike anything we have seen before,” Adel Hagekhalil, the district’s general manager, told the Los Angeles Times. “We need serious demand reductions.”

The MWD sources its water from the State Water Project, which funnels water from rivers in the northern part of the state southward to 27 million residents, and from the Colorado River. Approximately 40 million people in the Southwest rely on the Colorado for water, and with extreme drought worsened by climate change showing no signs of easing, supplies from the river have been stretched thin.

Earlier this month, the federal government declared a water shortage at Lake Mead, one of the Colorado's biggest reservoirs, that triggered water supply cuts. In March, California’s State Water Project announced that after a promising start to the state’s rainy season, the bone-dry first few months of 2022 meant it would limit its anticipated allocation of water to just 5% of normal.

Aerial view of Lake Mead, a reservoir formed by Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, shown at 30% capacity on Jan. 11, 2022, near Boulder City, Nevada.
Lake Mead, a reservoir formed by Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, is shown at 30% capacity on Jan. 11. (George Rose/Getty Images)

“We are experiencing climate change whiplash in real time, with extreme swings between wet and dry conditions,” Karla Nemeth, director of the California Department of Water Resources, said in a written statement.

Water restrictions are also being issued in the northern part of the state, which typically supplies water to Southern California. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the East Bay Municipal Utility District board voted Wednesday to immediately begin water restrictions for 1.4 million residents, following its declaration of a Stage 2 Drought Emergency. Homeowners in the district, which includes Oakland, Berkeley and many other areas east of San Francisco, will now be prohibited from watering lawns between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. and can report others who are not adhering to the new rules. The overall goal, EBMUD said, is to cut water use by 10% in the district.

Late-season snowstorms in the Sierra Nevada in recent days have boosted what little had remained of the snowpack, giving ski resorts a welcome reprieve, but an annual April 1 survey conducted by the Department of Water Resources found that snow levels were just 38% of the annual average.

Sprinklers spray water onto grass as a jogger runs through a city park in San Diego.
Sprinklers spray water onto grass as a jogger runs through a city park in San Diego. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Numerous scientific studies have established the connection between drought and climate change, with warmer temperatures speeding up evaporation, drying out soils and plant life.

"Drought — a year with a below-average water supply — is a natural part of the climate cycle, but as Earth’s atmosphere continues to warm due to climate change, droughts are becoming more frequent, severe, and pervasive," NASA says on its website. "The past 20 years have been some of the driest conditions in the American West on record."

Warmer temperatures and extreme heat waves are also exacerbating drought in places like Somalia, India and Pakistan, threatening crops and posing health risks for residents.