Aug 24, 2022 - Energy & Environment

SoCal facing "precarious situation" as water levels hit historic lows

In an aerial view very low water level exposes an expanded shoreline at Grant Lake, which is fed by now-nearly snowless mountains in the Eastern Sierra Nevada, on August 11.
The source of the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District's water is in the Sierra Nevada mountains Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

Celebrities including Kim and Kourtney Kardashian, Kevin Hart and Sylvester Stallone have been served with notices for exceeding their monthly water budgets at least four times, according to officials in California.

Driving the news: They're among more than 1,600 people who have exceeded their water budgets by 150% as the state faces a water and drought crisis exacerbated by climate change, Las Virgenes Municipal Water District spokesperson Mike McNutt told Axios on Tuesday evening.

  • The district, which covers affluent Los Angeles County cities including the Calabasas, Hidden Hills and Westlake Village, named the celebrities in order to highlight that California is facing a "collectively serious problem," McNutt told Axios in a phone interview.

Why it matters: California is the the grip of an ongoing megadrought that led Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) to expand a drought emergency declaration last October and officials in the south of the state to declare a water shortage emergency in April, restricting outdoor water usage.

  • Federal officials have issued increasingly urgent warnings about the need to conserve water, especially in the U.S. West.
  • "That is not just a drought, but the bigger picture of a changing climate, and how we're starting to see in the Southwest, a slow aridification process where we're a Mediterranean climate, but we're more moving into a desert type of environment now because of climate change influencing that," McNutt said.

Meanwhile, California remains prone to wildfires — and five large fires are currently burning across the state.

  • "When you have dry, brittle vegetation, where it's close to homes, that's a major problem for structural damage after a wildfire is rearing its head," McNutt said.

Zoom in: The Las Virgenes Municipal Water District issued a state of emergency over the water crisis in May and introduced watering restrictions and wasteful water penalties as a deterrence.

  • While fines of up $500 for violating water conservation measures may not be incentive enough for wealthy residents, the district can install a flow restriction device or terminate service after a fourth violation.
  • "Our water agency is 100% dependent upon imported water. We're one of the few water agencies, especially in southern California ... that has one singular source of water," McNutt said. "That's snowmelt runoff that comes from the Sierra Nevada mountains over 400 miles away to the California Aqueduct."
  • This underscores why the situation is so severe in the district, McNutt said.

The bottom line: "The whole infrastructure, the whole system ... the reservoirs are, are at historic lows. Our groundwater aquifers are being depleted," noted McNutt, pointing to long term forecasts by agencies like NOAA indicating indicating the Southwest would see higher temperatures, lower precipitation that promotes dry conditions.

  • "We're in a very precarious situation," he said.

Of note: Although the celebrities accused of water usage violations could not immediately be reached for comment, all of them have reduced water use by working with officials on measures such as limiting swimming pool refills, removing grass lawns and installing drip irrigation systems, according to McNutt.

  • He wants the celebrities to become "agents of change" for water conservation in order for Americans to transition from a "green lawn mindset" into "drought tolerant landscaping, using native plants being part of the local ecosystem."

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