Grand Jury Report: Historic Rain, yet Drought Remains



The “atmospheric river” of winter 2022-23 in California, causing floods in the lowlands and record snowpack in the mountains, has many people assuming that the “drought is over.” This assumption is far from the truth. Drought conditions are here to stay. While Orange County dams and reservoirs are currently at full capacity and the Sierra snowpack is at its deepest level in many years, there has been limited impact on the Western Rockies, the Colorado River, Lake Powell, and Lake Mead from which Southern California draws a significant amount of its potable water supply.

For the purposes of this report, the Orange County Grand Jury differentiated between source and supply. The source of water is the ocean and the resultant precipitation. The supply of water is how precipitation is captured and delivered to consumers of water, including recycling and reuse of this water.

Climatologists, water experts, and water managers agree we must adapt to climate change because longer droughts and extreme weather patterns are inevitable, adding urgency towards finding new methods for obtaining additional water sources.

In Orange County, the lack of available water over the past few years has frequently been identified as a “Water Crisis,” yet the phrase has failed to capture the scope of how dire the situation is. Generally, people don’t think about having enough water because it has been reliably available their entire lives. Throughout the county, there are numerous innovative water projects under consideration or development, but they may not be timely enough to avoid people running short of water and having to conserve much more, ultimately leading to mandated rationing.

Approximately half of all water used in Southern California is imported from the Colorado River and from the California Aqueduct. This imported water is severely constrained and unreliable. With infrequent and unreliable amounts of precipitation supplying both the Northern California Water Project and the Colorado River, the situation is becoming more critical. Several South Orange County cities rely almost solely on these imports. Locally, significant efforts are being made to reuse wastewater. These efforts are limited by the amount of water available from everyday use and do not create a new water source.

North and Central Orange County are served by a well-managed supply of water in underground storage, but it cannot meet the needs of the entire County. South County is entirely dependent on imported water.

The State of California mandated local governments to provide more affordable housing and is also promoting higher-density development. This does not recognize the limitations of the current water supply and its social and economic impacts. The State has failed to provide a supply of water to support these mandates.

Public awareness must be expanded to encourage better management of our water by expediting the process for planning and construction of new water sources such as desalination and prioritizing funding.

The Orange County Grand Jury recommends the creation of a “Climate Resiliency District” to lessen the County’s dependence on State and regional water projects. Just as Orange County supported Measure M and created the Orange County Transportation Authority to solve the county’s transportation crisis, the same bold leadership is needed to solve the county’s water crisis.

This report presents information about the current crisis in water planning, existing projects to increase the supply of non-potable water for irrigation, and storage issues. The report makes recommendations for a reliable source of potable water through the desalination of ocean water.

See the full report here: