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Thirsting for Progress: A Report Card on California’s Response to the Drought

Posted by Content Coordinator on Wednesday, December 23rd, 2015


As California bids farewell to a fourth, searing year of drought, we don’t know what Mother Nature has in store for us next year. We may face torrential downpours associated with the strong El Niño in the Pacific Ocean. We may face another crippling year of drought. Or we could experience something in between. But we do know that California has experienced multi-year droughts in the past and will again. As a state, we must prepare for these inevitable droughts if we are to continue to support our growing population, thriving economy, and healthy environment.

The National Weather Service defines drought as “a deficiency in precipitation over an extended period, usually a season or more, resulting in a water shortage causing adverse impacts on vegetation, animals, and/or people.” While droughts are normal, recurrent features of climate, they are not purely a function of hydrology. There is a human component; as the National Weather Service explains, “[h]uman factors, such as water demand and water management, can exacerbate the impact that drought has on a region.”

The good news is that these same human factors can also reduce the drought’s impact. If we become more efficient in our water use—demanding less water to perform the same task—we can reduce the frequency of water shortages, since shortages are simply a function of supply not meeting demand. If we improve our water management, we can create more resilient natural systems that can weather normal, recurrent periods of low precipitation, as most native water-dependent fish and wildlife evolved to do in the semi-arid west. This report card captures these and related advancements on the human side of the drought equation.

To help the state better prepare for future droughts, we took a look back at the State of California’s response under Governor Brown’s leadership to the current drought and assessed successes and shortcomings. We focused on five categories that we believe represent the highest priority strategies to achieve a sustainable and drought-resilient water future, one that better insulates the population and its natural resources from the vagaries of hydrology. NRDC and the Pacific Institute identified these five strategies in a report published in 2014 called The Untapped Potential of California’s Water Supply: Efficiency, Reuse, and Stormwater. These strategies are:

Water strategies and categories

These five strategies are top priority for a host of reasons. First, California has considerable untapped potential to reduce demand and increase supply by improving efficiency in urban and agricultural water use, capturing local rainwater, and recycling and reusing water. The NRDC and Pacific Institute analysis concluded that these four tools could reduce withdrawals from rivers, streams, and groundwater aquifers by 10.8 to 13.7 million acre-feet of water annually.3 That is more water, on average, than is used in all of California’s urban centers per year.

Second, the San Francisco Bay-Delta is the largest estuary on the west coast of the Americas and is California’s primary hub for moving water from north to south. It is also in severe decline as populations of native salmon and other species plummet due, in part, to excessive water diversions. Restoring the health of the Delta is critical to maintaining it as a future water supply; thriving agricultural and recreational center; and habitat for hundreds of species of native fish, birds and wildlife.

Finally, the state has codified the importance of pursuing these strategies in the 2009 Delta Reform Act, in which the Legislature declared:

“The policy of the State of California is to reduce reliance on the Delta in meeting California’s future water supply needs through a statewide strategy of investing in improved regional supplies, conservation, and water use efficiency. Each region that depends on water from the Delta watershed shall improve its regional self-reliance for water through investment in water use efficiency, water recycling, advanced water technologies, local and regional water supply projects, and improved regional coordination of local and regional water supply efforts;” and

“The policy of the State of California is to achieve the following objectives that the Legislature declares are inherent in the coequal goals for management of the Delta:

(a) Manage the Delta’s water and environmental resources and the water resources of the state over the long term.

(b) Protect and enhance the unique cultural, recreational, and agricultural values of the California Delta as an evolving place.

(c) Restore the Delta ecosystem, including its fisheries and wildlife, as the heart of a healthy estuary and wetland ecosystem.”

Californians across the state have stepped up to meet the challenges of the drought—cutting water use by more than 25 percent in urban areas during the summer of 2015. The state has made significant advancements on other water strategies during the drought—most notably, securing passage of the first-ever statewide sustainable groundwater management act in 2014, and securing passage of a $7.5 billion water bond in 2014 to help pay for needed water improvements.9 The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act represents an important milestone toward improving California’s overall water management, but it also heightens the need for alternative water supply strategies and complementary surface water protections. In order to achieve groundwater sustainability, the state will need to reduce the demand for groundwater by accelerating improvements in agricultural water use efficiency, in particular, as well as increasing the use of recycled water and capture of stormwater to replenish depleted groundwater basins. Reduced groundwater availability (and excessive groundwater pumping) also threaten to heighten pressure on already-overtapped rivers, streams, and estuaries, increasing the need for firm and enforceable flow objectives in surface water resources. We have focused here on the tools needed to help achieve the goal of sustainable groundwater and surface water use over the long term.

Figure 1. Total potential water supply and demand changes with four drought response strategies, in thousand acre-feet per year, by hydrolic region

Download full version (PDF): A Report Card on California’s Response to the Drought

About the Natural Resources Defense Council
NRDC is the nation’s most effective environmental action group, combining the grassroots power of more than 2 million members and online activists with the courtroom clout and expertise of nearly 500 lawyers, scientists and other professionals.

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