California Forum

These policy changes will help California prepare for the next drought

The shoreline of Folsom Lake had receded more than 100 yards in 2014. On April 7, 2017, California Gov. Jerry Brown declared an end to the state’s water emergency following a five-year drought that reduced rivers to trickles, farmland to dust fields and forests to swathes of dead trees.
The shoreline of Folsom Lake had receded more than 100 yards in 2014. On April 7, 2017, California Gov. Jerry Brown declared an end to the state’s water emergency following a five-year drought that reduced rivers to trickles, farmland to dust fields and forests to swathes of dead trees. Associated Press file

Gov. Jerry Brown has declared the drought over. What did we learn from more than five years of drought that could help us better manage the next one?

California’s urban economy remained strong, even as residents and businesses across the state responded to calls to save water. The agricultural economy also kept moving forward despite 50 percent average cuts in water deliveries – thanks to farmers’ ability to adapt by tapping groundwater, trading water and reducing acreage on the least profitable fields.

This drought also brought some hard lessons and gave us a glimpse into the future. Record warm temperatures – comparable to those predicted by many climate scientists for later this century – made drought management harder. Improving drought resilience in this increasingly challenging climate will require the following steps:

▪  Promote safe water solutions for rural residents: Domestic wells went dry in many low-income rural communities. The state was able to help with stop-gap solutions, including trucking in water. Some recent policy fixes will facilitate more durable solutions, but stable funding sources are still lacking.

▪  Create an effective environmental drought plan: California’s rivers and wetlands – and the biodiversity they support – suffered major harm during this drought. Waterbird populations were under threat from shrinking wetlands. Native fish species, including most of the state’s salmon runs, were pushed to the brink of extinction. Environmental managers were forced to make decisions on the fly with limited information. Better environmental drought planning includes identifying key refuge habitats and funding flexible strategies to acquire water where and when it is most needed. Establishing “environmental water budgets” for priority watersheds could help improve drought resilience of native species.

▪  Fund forest management plans: California’s forests are also in trouble, with thousands of dead or dying trees increasing the risk of catastrophic wildfires. Since this drought began, California experienced two of the three largest fires on record. A century of wildfire suppression and inconsistent efforts to reduce fuels increased the risk of major wildfires. Moving toward a strategy of long-term forest management and fuel reduction will require sustained funding and implementation over large areas for decades.

▪  Manage groundwater as a drought reserve: Increased pumping helped maintain farm sector investments and incomes, but it also had downsides. In some areas – including parts of the San Joaquin Valley, the state’s largest agricultural area – aquifer levels dropped dramatically, causing wells to go dry. Lands sank, damaging canals, bridges and levees. The drought highlighted the underlying weakness in groundwater management in much of rural California: Water users have been drawing down reserves in good rainfall years as well as bad ones. One major step forward was the adoption in 2014 of a state law that requires local agencies to develop and implement groundwater sustainability plans. Cooperative efforts are underway to implement this law.

▪  Build urban drought resilience: Urban and suburban communities cut water use by an average of nearly 25 percent at the height of the drought, and savings persisted even after the state lifted mandatory conservation last summer. These communities avoided major shortages, thanks to investments in water supply infrastructure since the last drought. Regional water sharing was also at an all-time high. Local agencies will need to continue diversifying supplies and managing demand. Strategies are also needed to address the fiscal fallout from conservation, because declining water sales often make it hard for agencies to cover their fixed costs.

▪  Strengthen water information, allocation, marketing systems: Better information and streamlined oversight of allocating and trading water will help stretch available resources during droughts. The state improved its water accounting during this drought – with new reporting requirements for surface water diversions and a new law to improve water data collection and sharing – but more needs to be done.

These kinds of policy changes won’t just help us weather the next drought, they’ll help us prepare for a hotter, drier future.

Ellen Hanak is the director of the PPIC Water Policy Center and can be contacted at hanak@ppic.org. Jeffrey Mount is a senior fellow at the center and can be contacted at mount@ppic.org.

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