California should protect the most vulnerable people affected by drought

A sign from an East Porterville resident reflects the frustration about getting water to the Tulare County community last year.
A sign from an East Porterville resident reflects the frustration about getting water to the Tulare County community last year.

Is the way we manage water in California fair?

Do we ensure that, while nobody has all the water they want, everyone has enough clean, affordable water to drink, cook and clean? Do those relying on water for their jobs – farmers, farmworkers and fishermen – feel the pain equally when there isn’t as much water as everyone would like?

The simple answer is no.

We just experienced the driest five-year period on record. During the drought, large water utilities and farms had to make adjustments to cope with limited water supplies but demonstrated great resiliency overall.

Small water suppliers and low-income families didn’t fare as well, as the Pacific Institute recently concluded in its new study, “Drought and Equity in California.”

An estimated 149 small- and medium-sized water systems, serving 480,000 people, faced difficulties in providing enough water to meet demand. An additional 4,000 households that get their water from a nearby well or stream rather than a state-regulated water system reported shortages. Shortages were widespread, occurring in two-thirds of counties throughout the state.

These impacts were felt by the most vulnerable families in the state. Most of the public water systems facing near or actual supply shortages served disadvantaged communities. In Tulare County, two-thirds of households reporting wells running short of water were in a low-income community. For most, simply drilling a new well is not an option, since it costs $30,000 – more than half the annual income of a typical household in these areas.

Even in places with enough water to meet basic needs, many struggled to pay for it. Water utilities often impose temporary charges during droughts to meet their fixed costs and cover additional expenses that may arise during dry years. But the way drought charges are structured can have a major impact on low-income households already struggling to pay for their basic water needs.

During the drought, most of the utilities we surveyed implemented drought charges that raised water rates for everyone, even the thriftiest users. That meant low-income households paid more to take care of their basic indoor water needs, when we know that between 20 and 50 percent of households are already paying more than they can afford for water in various regions of the state.

And let’s not forget the people who rely on healthy ecosystems to make a living. The phrase “fish vs. farms” was thrown around a lot in recent years, as if water in rivers benefits only fish. But this ignores the people who rely on those fish, including California’s commercial and tribal fishermen.

The 2016 salmon fishing season was shortened to protect stressed salmon populations. The Karuk Tribe, who have fished in the Klamath River as long as anyone can recall, had no salmon for their ceremonies last fall and used chicken instead.

So, what can we do?

First, water systems of all sizes – even private wells – should be covered by water shortage contingency plans, not just the large utilities.

The state and counties should get measures in place immediately to ensure that new wells don’t cause shortages for neighboring wells. A bill proposed by former state Sen. Lois Wolk is a good start.

State-funded programs offering technical and financial assistance to water utilities should include information on how to implement drought charges in ways that do not unfairly burden low-income households.

State agencies should set aside water for streams – and the fish and fishermen who rely on them – by setting minimum in-stream flow requirements.

Climate change models predict that California’s periodic droughts will become more frequent and severe. While recent storms have brought some relief, now is the time to put measures in place to safeguard those most vulnerable to drought from the next dry period.

Laura Feinstein is a senior research associate at the Pacific Institute, a global water think tank based in Oakland. She can be contacted at