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Will Los Angeles Get Any of That Sweet NorCal Rainwater?

SoCal water agencies are importing more northern water after a wet winter, but a lot is going to farmers

So, maybe the Godzilla El Niño hasn't really panned out for Los Angeles. Sure, there's still some time for these 80 degree days to shove off and some rain to move in to help out with this long drought, but we're not holding our breath.

However, though we may forget it, California extends far beyond LA, and it turns out our neighbors to the north are experiencing the full effect of El Niño-fueled rainstorms. In Northern California, increased precipitation is steadily building up snowpack and refueling reservoirs. The LA Times reports that recent storms have filled Lake Shasta, California's biggest reservoir, to 87 percent of its capacity. March rains have even spiked the water levels to above the historic average, adding more than 1 million acre-feet (1 acre-foot is equal to 325,851 gallons) of water to the reservoir.

In fact, Lake Shasta is getting so full from rainfall, lake officials have been increasing the daily amount of water released into the Sacramento River just so Lake Shasta has room for even more rain—starting on March 18, the rate of water released into the river was quadrupled, from 5,000 cubic feet of water to 20,000 cubic feet. It was the first time lake officials have released water at that rate since 2011, which is about when the drought began. That released water travels down the Sacramento River into the State Water Project, a series of aqueducts and watersheds that distribute water throughout the state.

Lake Shasta isn't alone either. Other reservoirs in Northern California are also seeing water levels above their historical averages. Lake Oroville and Folsom lake are at 109 percent and 110 percent of their historical averages respectively. They too are seeing an increase of water released into the State Water Project.

After years of drought, the Department of Water Resources wants to share in its water wealth, and so they've just increased the amount of water the State Water Project allocates to Central and Southern California. In 2014, only five percent of northern water made its way to Southern and Central California water agencies; now that allocation has jumped to 45 percent.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies water to LA and many of its surrounding communities, is chomping at the bit to buy that northern water. MWD has been dipping into their reserves for the past few years of drought, and they're ready to refill their reservoirs with Northern California rain. MWD is importing 900,000 acre-feet of northern water this year, which is 500,000 acre-feet more than last year and 800,000 acre-feet more than they imported in 2014.

But what does this bounty mean for a thirsty Los Angeles? Will LA get any trickle-down benefits from a bulging lake 550 miles to the north? Can we go back to over-watering lawns and taking 20 minute showers?

Probably not.

Though the State Water Project has increased the amount of water allocated to Central and Southern California, MWD reserves a lot of that water for agriculture. Los Angeles Department of Water and Power officials say they have to "wait in line for SWP allocations" while farmers get first dibs. LADWP officials tell the San Jose Mercury News that, despite the increase in available water, "purchased water imports from Metropolitan Water District remain expensive."

According to Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta (an activist group opposing Governor Jerry Brown's $14-billion underground water transport system), farmers in Kern County will end up buying 50 percent of all that water MWD is importing from the north. She claims that water customers in urban areas are "subsidizing agriculture's water buys" and contends that Kern County agriculture's massive use of water simply ends up "sending off almonds and pistachios to China."