California Forum

Viewpoints: Extraordinary times call for extraordinary response

Nearly every day brings fresh signs that California is in a drought of epic proportions. Whether it’s the historic announcement of zero deliveries from the State Water Project or the latest survey confirming the lowest Sierra snowpack on record for the date, it’s clear that we are entering uncharted territory.

If the dry conditions are unprecedented, so, too, are the actions in response. Citing a need to preserve what water remains in key reservoirs, state officials told local water agencies to expect zero water from the project this year. Officials also laid out a series of steps to preserve supplies and provide flexibility to maintain operations and meet environmental needs.

The announcement, just two weeks after Gov. Jerry Brown declared a statewide drought emergency, came days after President Barack Obama called the governor to pledge federal support to assist the state. The governor then sat down with water leaders in Southern California to stress the need for water conservation and other actions to manage the crisis.

In a year shaping up to be like no other, local water managers from every corner of California are uniting in support of the governor’s call for a statewide response to a statewide problem. We are one state, after all, and residents everywhere can do their part to embrace the governor’s request for all Californians to reduce water use by 20 percent.

The Save Our Water program (, a partnership between the Association of California Water Agencies and the Department of Water Resources, has an array of tools and resources to help consumers reduce their water use.

How unprecedented is this drought? The facts on the ground tell the story. The latest snow survey found the Sierra snowpack – so critical to filling our reservoirs and streams in the spring – is virtually nonexistent. Key state reservoirs, already at record-shattering low levels, have little chance of recovering this spring. In fact, reservoir storage is much lower at this point in the year than it was in the severe drought year of 1977. And our population has more than doubled, from 18 million in 1977 to 38 million today.

Although this is indeed a statewide drought, some areas are being squeezed more than others. Communities in the Sacramento region that rely directly on rapidly shrinking Folsom Lake, for example, are bracing for potentially dire conditions later this year. Mandatory conservation is almost certainly on the horizon for some communities. At least three counties – Mendocino, Santa Barbara and San Joaquin – have declared local drought emergencies, and others will consider action this month.

The Tuolumne Utilities District in Sonora is requiring customers to reduce water use by 50 percent in the face of dwindling storage in its two main reservoirs. Meanwhile, the state Department of Public Health has identified some 17 small communities and drinking water systems that could face severe water shortages in the next 60 to 100 days.

In the Central Valley, growers are bracing for cutbacks in surface water supplies. Some water-deprived areas in the San Joaquin Valley are facing surface supply cuts ranging from 50 percent to 100 percent this year. Many will lean heavily on groundwater, which could worsen subsidence in some areas. In many cases, fields will go fallow, affecting jobs not only in these areas, but statewide.

State and local officials are moving quickly to get resources and assistance to the hardest-hit pockets of pain. At the Association of California Water Agencies, we are assembling a drought task force to identify short-term needs and measures that will help, and to look at the long term to minimize future droughts of this proportion.

Local water managers prepare for dry times by putting contingency plans in place to respond to drought, and also by diversifying their portfolio of source and supply. They have incorporated lessons learned from past droughts and identified appropriate steps to respond as dry conditions emerge. But even the best-laid plans can be overwhelmed by Mother Nature.

Many regions have made significant investments in the last decade to expand local surface and groundwater storage, boost water-use efficiency and bring water recycling and other strategies on line to stretch supplies on an ongoing basis. These investments – particularly in water storage – are proving invaluable this year. We need to replicate that success in every region of California and at the statewide level.

The governor has called for a comprehensive action plan that includes the above-mentioned investments. The Association of California Water Agencies strongly supports such a plan and stands ready to work with the governor, the Legislature and others to advance such a plan and needed public financing in the form of a water bond this year.

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. We can – and must – rise to this challenge and come together as Californians.