Here’s the right strategy for California’s next drought

Glen Peterson, left, looks on as Dan Denning, a water conservationist for San Diego County Water Authority, speaks to him about sprinkler flow in May 2015.
Glen Peterson, left, looks on as Dan Denning, a water conservationist for San Diego County Water Authority, speaks to him about sprinkler flow in May 2015. Associated Press

The recent drought brought record high temperatures and record low precipitation, pushed numerous native fish species to the brink of extinction and led to unusually large drops in groundwater levels. But the biggest milestone for urban areas was the state’s unprecedented order to cut water use by an average of 25 percent.

By some measures, the conservation mandate was a great success. From June 2015 to February 2016, Californians reduced water use by 24 percent compared to the same months in 2013 – more than double the savings achieved under a voluntary program in 2014. And the urban economy still grew faster than the national average.

But the mandate was a blunt instrument. It didn’t reflect how well prepared most urban suppliers were, or their willingness to further reduce water use when needed. It generated discord, and it muddied state and local roles and responsibilities.

Our new research being released Thursday suggests that two key factors are important to improving urban drought preparation and response in California. They point to a strategy to better manage water, and not just during droughts.

First, California’s urban water supply system is decentralized, with 400-plus utilities serving more than 90 percent of all residents, compared to just five electricity utilities for the same size population. In past droughts, local decision-making was considered essential because of this complexity.

Second, becoming resilient to drought requires developing water reserves and managing short-term demands. Cities invested vast sums on supply and storage since the last major drought, but the state mandate focused exclusively on demand, essentially ignoring local supplies.

As a result, most water suppliers we surveyed said the rationing requirement was excessive. Communities were required to cut use even if they had invested in supplies developed for droughts, such as banked groundwater. Managers said that uncertainty about future state policy could discourage such investments, funded mostly by local ratepayers.

To improve response to future droughts, a “trust but verify” policy can be more effective than the “better safe than sorry” approach of the state conservation mandate.

A good model is the “stress test” the state adopted toward the end of the drought, which allowed local utilities to drop conservation mandates if they could demonstrate they had three years of drought-resilient supplies.

The state should also make permanent its requirement that suppliers report their water use each month. This is a valuable tool for tracking trends, not only for water managers, but also for the media and general public. Maintaining this reporting during non-drought years can also help reduce water use over the long-term.

Implementing these recommendations will help protect California’s residents and businesses from the worst effects of future droughts, and it can start right now.

Ellen Hanak is director of the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center and can be contacted at David Mitchell is a co-founder and principal at M.Cubed, and can be contacted at