California has about one year of water left and PPIC Policy Recommendations


California has about one year of water left. Will you ration now?

By Jay Famiglietti LA Times OpEd March 13, 2015

  • We’re not just up a creek without a paddle in California, we’re losing the creek too
  • Authorize mandatory water rationing across the state

Given the historic low temperatures and snowfalls that pummeled the eastern U.S. this winter, it might be easy to overlook how devastating California’s winter was as well. As our “wet” season draws to a close, it is clear that the paltry rain and snowfall have done almost nothing to alleviate epic drought conditions. January was the driest in California since record-keeping began in 1895. Groundwater and snowpack levels are at all-time lows. We’re not just up a creek without a paddle in California, we’re losing the creek too. Statewide, we’ve been dropping more than 12 million acre-feet of total water yearly since 2011. Roughly two-thirds of these losses are attributable to groundwater pumping for agricultural irrigation in the Central Valley. Farmers have little choice but to pump more groundwater during droughts, especially when their surface water allocations have been slashed 80% to 100%. But these pumping rates are excessive and unsustainable. Wells are running dry. In some areas of the Central Valley, the land is sinking by one foot or more per year.

As difficult as it may be to face, the simple fact is that California is running out of water — and the problem started before our current drought. NASA data reveal that total water storage in California has been in steady decline since at least 2002, when satellite-based monitoring began, although groundwater depletion has been going on since the early 20th century. Right now the state has only about one year of water supply left in its reservoirs, and our strategic backup supply, groundwater, is rapidly disappearing. California has no contingency plan for a persistent drought like this one
(let alone a 20-plus-year mega-drought), except, apparently, staying in emergency mode and praying for rain.

In short, we have no paddle to navigate this crisis. Several steps need be taken right now.

  • First, immediate mandatory water rationing should be authorized across all of the state’s water sectors, from domestic and municipal through agricultural and industrial. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is already considering water rationing by the summer unless conditions improve. There is no need for the rest of the state to hesitate. The public is ready. A recent Field Poll showed that 94% of Californians surveyed believe that the drought is serious, and that one-third support mandatory rationing.
  • Second, the implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 should be accelerated. The law requires the formation of numerous, regional groundwater sustainability agencies by 2017. Then each agency must adopt a plan by 2022 and “achieve sustainability” 20 years after that. At that pace, it will be nearly 30 years before we even know what is working. By then, there may be no groundwater left to sustain. Total water storage in California has been in steady decline since at least 2002 … while groundwater depletion has been ongoing since the early 20th century. –  
  • Third, the state needs a task force of thought leaders that starts, right now, brainstorming to lay the groundwork for long-term water management strategies. Although several state task forces have been formed in response to the drought, none is focused on solving the long-term needs of a drought-prone, perennially water-stressed California. Our state’s water management is complex, but the technology and expertise exist to handle this harrowing future. It will require major changes in policy and infrastructure that could take decades to identify and act upon. Today, not tomorrow, is the time to begin.
  • Finally, the public must take ownership of this issue. This crisis belongs to all of us — not just to a handful of decision-makers. Water is our most important, commonly owned resource, but the public remains detached from discussions and decisions. This process works just fine when water is in abundance. In times of crisis, however, we must demand that planning for California’s water security be an honest, transparent and forward-looking process. Most important, we must make sure that there is in fact a plan. Call me old-fashioned, but I’d like to live in a state that has a paddle so that it might also still have a creek.

Jay Famiglietti is the senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech and a professor of Earth system science at UC Irvine.


New Melones Reservoir, February 20, 2015 Image: DWR

New PPIC Publication: Policy Priorities for Managing Drought



California’s productive agricultural sector requires large volumes of water for irrigation during the dry summer months, typically using roughly four times as much water as cities.13 Over the past few decades, farmers have also adapted to growing water scarcity through major investments in irrigation efficiency and shifts toward crops that generate higher revenues per unit of water used.14 However, these adaptations have not generally increased drought resilience. In most of California’s farming regions, irrigation efficiency improves crop yields and quality, but it does not increase overall water availability.15 That is because irrigation water in less efficient systems generally is not wasted; water not consumed by crops either returns to streams where it is reused by others or else percolates through soils to recharge groundwater basins. Meanwhile, the long-term shift to high-revenue perennial nuts, fruits, and vines has made agricultural water demands more rigid, because it is more expensive to fallow this land during drought. As a result, the drought hit agriculture particularly hard. Statewide, approximately 5 percent of cropland—mainly used for lower-revenue annual crops—was fallowed, with total economic losses of more than $2 billion and 17,000 full- or part-time jobs.16



California’s aquatic ecosystems and the species that depend on them were also hit hard. Many salmon- and steelhead-bearing rivers and streams on the North Coast and in the Central Valley had record-low flows and high temperatures. Unusually low flows into the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta led to poor water quality. Surveys in fall 2014 found some fish species—including the protected delta smelt—at record or near-record lows (Figure 4), and 95 percent of the 2014 offspring from spawning winter-run Chinook salmon perished because of warm water.17 Fish rescue operations were needed for some native fish species.18 Finally, water for wildlife refuges was significantly cut back, reducing critical winter feeding habitat for birds during an unusually large Pacific Flyway migration.19


….State, federal, and local water managers have worked diligently to reduce the economic, social, and environmental harm from the current drought. But as the drought continues, the challenges will grow more acute. California can learn from experiences to date—and from Australia’s response to its Millennium Drought—to better prepare both for the year ahead and for future droughts.
State leaders should address weaknesses in four areas of drought preparation and response, by:

  1. Manage Water More Tightly, with Better Information

Australia’s Millennium Drought offers a useful case study for California. Before and during that drought, Australians invested significantly in tracking water, including accurate measurements of flow, quality, storage, diversions, discharges, and uses.23 This allowed water managers to tightly manage water allocation and delivery in fair, transparent, and flexible ways. By comparison, California’s water monitoring systems are primitive, with significant gaps in critical information. The resulting uncertainty creates inefficiencies, reduces transparency, and fosters conflict.

California urgently needs to modernize water accounting to support transparent decisionmaking, both for drought curtailments and for water trading. Adopting new technologies (e.g., automated gaging, remote sensing, and improved hydrologic models) to monitor and predict water flow and quality is one piece of the equation. The other piece is requiring more accurate measurement and timely reporting of water diversions and discharges by major water-right-holders. Today, senior surface water-rights holders and those with riparian24 water rights must only report diversions—the amount of water they use on farms or deliver to urban customers—every three years. (Junior rights holders report diversions each year.) And outside of urban areas, no water diverters are required to report discharges—or the amount of water returned to streams after use—even though this constitutes a significant share of supplies on some rivers.

The State Water Resources Control Board, working closely with the Department of Water Resources and the legislature, could enact meaningful reforms in water use reporting. Additional state funds are likely to be needed to improve water monitoring networks—from Proposition 1 or other sources. Federal funds also could help modernize these networks.

2) Set Clear Priorities, Objectives, and Expectations

The water board’s water curtailment actions in 2014 were highly controversial. Many water users questioned the fairness of curtailments, which relied solely on the seniority of water rights and failed to consider the efficiency of use and other factors. Critics also argued that the board did not identify amounts required to meet urgent public health and safety needs or the needs of the environment. By law these factors must be considered along with seniority, and in some circumstances they may take precedence over water rights.25

During the Millennium Drought, some Australian states developed processes that greatly reduced uncertainty and controversy by clearly identifying priorities for public health and safety and giving due consideration to environmental impacts.26 The board could modify its curtailment processes to explicitly identify the magnitudes and priorities of these values in advance of a drought, and exercise these procedures in “dry runs” that simulate droughts, just as agencies have drills for earthquakes, floods, and fires.

  1. Promote Reasonable Use and Robust Supplies

California cities and farms must also make further progress in managing demand and developing reliable supplies. Significant improvements are possible in the following areas:

  • Reduce urban landscape irrigation. Landscape irrigation accounts for roughly half of urban water use.27 In Australia, changes in urban landscaping significantly reduced urban demand. Local agencies can use financial incentives (e.g., rebates) and conservation-oriented water rates to encourage customers to install more efficient irrigation systems and to replace thirsty lawns with more California-friendly plants. Conference participants also highlighted the value of state action, to help local agencies withstand political pressures from residents. For instance, the legislature or the water board could set landscaping water use standards to be implemented by local agencies.28
  • Improve conservation-oriented pricing in cities. Water pricing—particularly tiered rates that charge higher per-gallon rates for greater water use—are important to promote urban conservation. Rates also need to provide revenue streams that are stable when water sales fall, so that utilities can still cover their fixed costs. Ideally, rate structures should allow per-gallon prices to increase during droughts. Unfortunately, very few of California’s urban utilities had robust drought pricing systems in place last year.29 Here again, the legislature or the water board could help by setting standards for local compliance.30
  • Strengthen water markets.
    Australia depended heavily on water markets to reduce the costs of the drought, and made numerous policy changes to enable water markets to function effectively in very dry years. Investments in (sometimes highly controversial) conveyance infrastructure expanded market access.31 California’s water market has helped both farms and cities cope with droughts, but this market can be strengthened with a more transparent approval process and strategic investments in monitoring and conveyance infrastructure.32
  • Continue diversifying urban supplies. Local agencies should continue to make investments in non-traditional supplies (such as recycled water and stormwater capture projects), interconnections, and storage. Proposition 1 authorizes matching funds for such projects.
  • Manage groundwater. As this drought has shown, groundwater is California’s most important drought reserve; it is critical to the health of the agricultural economy. Yet decades of overuse—most notably in the southern Central Valley—have depleted many groundwater basins and reduced their value for drought management. The new groundwater law holds great promise for managing future droughts. But the timeline is long, giving basins more than 25 years to attain sustainability. The state could support local efforts to expedite this process through additional legislation (e.g., to facilitate the allocation of pumping rights and trading), technical assistance (particularly in areas without a history of groundwater management), help in organizing local agencies, and funding (including Proposition 1 bond funds).
  • Prevent waste and unreasonable use. The State Water Resources Control Board should exercise its constitutional authority to ensure that California’s scarce water resources are “put to beneficial use to the fullest extent of which they are capable.” This might include encouraging changes in the timing of water diversions so that they best suit the needs of fish and wildlife – something Sacramento Valley rice growers agreed to this past year on a voluntary basis. Where appropriate, the board could also scrutinize individual users whose diversions harm other water users or the environment, and determine whether local restrictions on water trading constitute unreasonable use during severe droughts.

Modernize Environmental Drought Management

State and federal fish and wildlife agencies—working closely with water managers—undertook great efforts to reduce the environmental harm of this drought. But most efforts were made without advanced planning and without strong scientific input or review. Few investments were made in advance to reduce drought impacts; there has been limited monitoring of the effectiveness of emergency measures; and no strategy has been developed for recovering species when the drought ends.
Failure to protect native species during drought can have costly long-term regulatory consequences, with new restrictions that limit future water supply and hydropower.

California needs an aquatic and wetland drought management plan to improve the resilience of the state’s native biodiversity. This plan should set clear objectives for drought management, including priorities when limited water availability forces difficult trade-offs between species (for example, when storing water for late season flows to protect salmon reduces available water for delta smelt). The plan should also identify key river segments and minimum instream flows needed to maintain species of concern, guidelines for carryover storage in reservoirs to meet environmental needs, and emergency actions (such as captive breeding programs and refuge habitats) to prevent extinction. This plan should be developed by a biodiversity task force made up of independent experts, working closely with agency personnel.

State and federal agencies should then use this plan to guide drought management. Implementation requires both a reliable source of funds and a reliable allocation of water for the environment. Proposition 1 authorizes nearly $1.5 billion for ecosystem investments, and at least half of the $2.7 billion authorized for storage projects must also support the environment. The legislature, which will oversee bond expenditures, could insist that agencies adopt an environmental drought plan and prioritize investments that increase the environment’s drought resilience. The legislature could also identify a reliable long-term funding mechanism that outlives the current bond.

The Australian state of Victoria benefited greatly from this type of planning tool, which enabled environmental water managers to allocate environmental water where it was most needed during the drought.33 California should also consider two additional innovations that have proved very useful for managing Australia’s environment during the Millennium Drought and beyond. The first is purchase of water rights for the environment, which provides managers with a flexible tool for managing key habitats.34 The “Environmental Water Holder” is able to trade its annual water allocations to get water where it is most needed, and even use revenues from water leasing for other habitat improvements.35

The second innovation is a financial contribution from water authorities. In the state of Victoria, this amounts to 5 percent of revenue from urban water services and 2 percent from rural (irrigation) water services.36 The receipts are used to promote sustainable water management and address adverse water-related environmental impacts. These funds can help develop critical drought habitat, purchase water during shortages, and recover populations following drought.


Implementing these four solutions—better water use information, clear priority-setting, stronger demand and supply management, and forward-looking environmental drought management—will improve California’s ability to weather droughts, a recurring feature of the state’s climate. Making these changes will be worth the effort, but it will entail some costs. And like all meaningful reforms, it will require overcoming institutional and political hurdles and objections from those who prefer the status quo. The Australians made these difficult policy changes during their long drought, leaving them better prepared for the next drought. California needs to do the same.

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