California Drought—Some Solutions




New report from the Pacific Institute and the NRDC; Drought-stricken California could save up to 14 million acre-feet of water; enough to supply all the state’s cities annually

by Maven From the Pacific Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council:

“California could be saving up to 14 million acre-feet of untapped water – providing more than the amount of water used in all of California’s cities in one year – with an aggressive statewide effort to use water-saving practices, reuse water, and capture lost stormwater, according to a new analysis released today by the Pacific Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“Our current approach to water use is unsustainable, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t enough water to meet our needs,” said Kate Poole, NRDC senior attorney with the water program. “At a time when every drop counts, we need to employ sensible and cost-effective 21st century solutions that will help us reduce uses today while promising new, resilient supplies for cities and farms tomorrow.”

“As climate change brings more extreme weather, including droughts, ramping up forward-thinking solutions now will help us be more resilient,” said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute. “With widespread adoption of available water conservation and efficiency improvements, demand can be met more readily, less expensively, and with less pressure on our tapped-out rivers and groundwater basins. Moreover, water reuse and stormwater capture can help boost local supplies.” NRDC and the Pacific Institute’s issue brief, The Untapped Potential of California’s Water Supply, is a first-of-its-kind statewide analysis examining the significant potential contributions achievable from a combination of improved efficiency in agricultural and urban water use, water reuse and recycling, and increased capturing of local rainwater….


Key findings and solutions from the new study include:

  • Agriculture uses about 80 percent of California’s developed water supply. Agricultural water users can develop more sustainable water use by expanding adoption of key modern irrigation technologies and practices, such as drip irrigation and precise irrigation scheduling. Some farmers are already employing these practices, which, extended, can reduce agricultural water use by 17 to 22 percent – or 5.6 to 6.6 million acre-feet of water annually. These savings are the equivalent to the surface water that Central Valley farms are lacking this year due to the drought.
  • Urban areas use about 20 percent of the state’s developed water supply, much of which is delivered from reservoirs hundreds of miles away at great ecological and energy cost. Improved efficiency, stormwater capture, and greater water reuse can together save a total of 5.2 to 7.1 million acre-feet of water per year, enough water to supply all of urban Southern California and have water remaining to help restore ecosystems and recharge aquifers. These approaches also cut energy use, boost local water reliability, and improve water quality in coastal regions.
  • In total, these 21st century water supply solutions can offer up to 14 million acre-feet in new supplies and demand reductions per year, more water than is used in all of California’s cities in a year. These savings would provide enough water to serve 20 cities the size of Los Angeles, every year.

“While there’s no silver bullet to solving this water crisis, efficiency, reuse, and stormwater provide a tremendous water-saving blueprint we can realize if we take collaborative action now, backed by government and community leadership,” said Poole. “This is a critical moment for all water users to step up and implement robust solutions that will make a lasting difference.” “We know that traditional water solutions have failed to solve California’s water problems,” said Gleick. “The good news is that there are broad, cost-effective, environmentally sound options that work and that can help us during the current drought and far into the future.”


  • View the downloadable infographic and full issue brief here: and
  • The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 1.4 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world’s natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at and follow us on Twitter @NRDCWater.
  • The Pacific Institute is one of the world’s leading independent nonprofit research organizations working to create a healthier planet and sustainable communities. Based in Oakland, California, the Institute conducts interdisciplinary research and partners with stakeholders to produce solutions that advance environmental protection, economic development, and social equity – in California, nationally, and internationally. Visit us at



The Australian Approach to Water Crisis: Work With Farmers

Posted by Brian Richter of The Nature Conservancy and University of Virginia in Water Currents on June 5, 2014

The Murray River near Renmark, Australia. (Photograph by Brian Richter)

With water crises erupting in California, Texas, and the Colorado River Basin, state water managers throughout the western U.S. and our federal government could take some valuable lessons from the impressive progress made in Australia over the past decade. The Aussies have taken some giant leaps forward in their efforts to avert water shortages in their largest river basin – the Murray-Darling. Most notably, the Aussies realized decades ago that over-allocation of water rights in the Murray-Darling Basin was damaging both to the environment and to their economy. The Murray-Darling Basin is Australia’s food basket, providing nearly 40% of the country’s agricultural production.  Most of the country’s fruits and vegetables, as well as dairy products, beef, lamb, and wine, are produced using Murray-Darling water.  When farmers don’t get the water they need, everybody suffers. But when too many straws are drawing from the rivers, you can be certain that when dry times come, many will be sucking air. During a devastating “Millennium Drought” in 1997-2009, river flows throughout the basin were only 40-60% of average.  Many farmers received no water allocations whatsoever for three years.  Dairy production fell by 14 percent, cotton fell by a fourth, meat by half, and rice farming stopped almost entirely. Realizing that setting a maximum limit on water use is essential to everyone’s water and food security, the Aussies in 1997 adopted “The Cap.”  This limit on total water use – which was further institutionalized in a comprehensive Basin Plan adopted in 2012 – recognized that water rights needed to be reduced by about a third if the country was going to avoid another economic and environmental disaster. Importantly, the cap on water rights will leave 60% of the water in the rivers, on average, for ecological support.  While many scientists argued for even higher levels of protection for the environment, it is hoped that the imposed cap on water extraction will be sufficient to avoid the massive fish kills and toxic blue-green algal blooms that occurred historically when water extractions were greater….

….Similar to the western U.S., most of the water consumption in the Murray-Darling Basin goes to irrigated agriculture.  Since 2002, the Australian Commonwealth (federal) government has allocated nearly U.S. $14 billion dollars to reduce the volume of water being used on farms. More than two-thirds of this money has been directed into a Sustainable Rural Water Use and Infrastructure Program that helps farmers to install more efficient irrigation technologies like drip irrigation, or reduce water losses through infrastructure improvements such as concrete lining of earthen ditches.  This program has been extremely well-received, and farmers have lined up to take the government’s help in saving water on their farms.  Importantly, the government recovers the portion of the water right that is no longer needed due to the water savings. The remainder of this federal funding support was directed at buying water rights from willing sellers.  Some farmers sold their water and got out of farming altogether.  But many others switched to growing crops that used less water, thereby freeing up some water for sale. To date, nearly 70% of the targeted reductions in water use have been achieved.  Much of the early progress came from buying back water rights, but the Commonwealth government has now largely shifted to irrigation improvements, at the request of rural communities concerned about losing farm families after selling their water rights.  Even though the water savings achieved through these irrigation investments is 2-7 times more expensive than buying the water outright, the government has listened to rural concerns about the possible cultural and economic disruption that can result from buying back too much water.

The Principles of Sustainable Water Management

The Australian water reforms and investments achieved in the last decade exemplify three of the seven sustainability principles that I’ve described in my new book Chasing Water: A Guide for Moving from Scarcity to Sustainability, to be released by Island Press next week:

  • Set limits on total consumptive use of water
  • Invest in water conservation to its maximum potential
  • If too much water is being consumptively used, subsidize reductions in consumption…



The reservoir above Englebright Dam on the Yuba River—a third filled up with sediment.

UC Berkeley California Magazine

No Joy in Mudville: Amid Drought, California’s Reservoirs are Clogged with Gunk

By Glen Martin June 5, 2014

As the drought drags on and reservoir levels keep dropping, our politicians predictably are clamoring for new dams. But there may be a better and cheaper way to squeeze more water out of California’s desiccated watersheds: Clean out the gunk behind existing reservoirs. That’s because dams collect sediment from eroding watersheds along with water. Our reservoirs rapidly are filling up with silt, sand and rocks—and the more sediment, the less room there is to collect life-sustaining water. “So far, there’s about 1.7 million acre feet of sediment behind California’s dams,” observes U.S. Geological Survey geomorphologist J. Toby Minear, “and more is deposited every year.” Make no mistake: 1.7 million acre feet is a lot of mud, no matter how you shovel it. A single acre foot is equivalent to a foot of a given substance covering an acre. By another, more familiar metric, that amounts to 325,852 gallons.

The problem is worse for smaller reservoirs in “highly erodible” watersheds than for larger reservoirs with stable, rocky slopes. In other words, it’s more of a worry for the small projects in the coastal range than the big reservoirs in the Sierra foothills. There are many exceptions to this rule, however; some reservoirs east of the Central Valley also are clogging up. “Really, it’s an issue for all of the state’s 1,400 reservoirs,” says UC Berkeley professor of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning Matt Kondolf.  “And for some reservoirs it’s critical.”

Kondolf cites four dams with reservoirs that are literally topped out with sediment: Rindge Dam on Malibu Creek, Matilija Dam on the Ventura River, San Clemente Dam on the Carmel River, and Searsville Dam on San Francisquito Creek on the San Francisco Peninsula. All these “reservoirs” would be better put to cultivating potatoes than storing water. “On top of that there are maybe 200 reservoirs that are from a third to half full (of sediment),” he adds.  “Englebright Dam on the Yuba River is about a third full with 200 million cubic yards of sediment. Black Butte reservoir (west of Orland) is also filling up rapidly, with close to a third of its capacity taken by sediment.”…

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