California’s drought reckoning could offer lessons for the West
The golden hills of California have turned green in recent weeks after a series of storms delivered much-needed rain and snow to a state suffering from two years of drought.
But state officials and water policy experts are still urging caution even in these wet conditions, pushing for water-saving measures as the drought is expected to continue throughout much of the West.
“Even with those rains and with that massive snowpack, the larger issues of drought in California are not resolved,” said Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College in Claremont, California. “No one talks about water when it’s raining. We need to have the conversation now.”
California remains in the grip of a dry period that has substantially depleted the state’s reservoirs, facilitated some of the largest wildfires in state history and led officials to add new restrictions on water use.
This past water year (a measure that takes into account total winter precipitation), which ran from October 2020 through the end of September, was the driest in a century. Just three months into the new water year, California already has surpassed 2021’s precipitation levels.
The drought has laid bare some of the challenges that California and other states face in managing their water supplies. A California conservation law being implemented over the next two decades, along with a range of actions by communities across the state, provide a preview of difficult policy choices communities across the West will have to grapple with as climate change pushes water shortages to crisis levels.
While some communities, such as Marin County just north of San Francisco, have debated building a multimillion-dollar emergency pipeline to bring in water, other communities have sought approaches that rely on reuse and recycling.
Orange County now is home to the world’s largest groundwater replenishment site, a treatment plant that purifies wastewater and injects that water back into its underground aquifers, instead of pumping treated water into the Pacific Ocean.
Some communities are trying to improve their stormwater capture systems, while others are exploring turning ocean water into drinking water. San Diego County has the largest desalination plant in the western hemisphere, and other communities are considering following its example.
The infrastructure law President Joe Biden signed in November includes $82.5 billion for critical water investments nationwide, including grants, studies and federal projects.
But the problems these policies attempt to address are daunting.
California and other states swing from extreme wet to extreme dry conditions, which will only be exacerbated by the worsening climate crisis.
There’s also a lack of reliable long-term weather forecasting that could predict precipitation levels throughout an entire wet season, instead of just two weeks.
“These days, it’s all about being more efficient in water management,” said Jeanine Jones, interstate resources manager at the California Department of Water Resources. “You need better forecasts to be more efficient.”
In long dry spells, communities and farmers in many states also draw heavily on underground aquifers, many of which are being overdrafted, even in average rain years. California’s Central Valley, the heart of America’s produce industry, is literally sinking because of its depleting and overpumped aquifer.
Big measures are needed now to address many of these challenges, said Andrew Ayres, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, a San Francisco-based nonprofit. California has generally lagged other Western states in having comprehensive groundwater plans, Ayres said.
Arizona, for example, enacted its groundwater management act in 1980. The legislation mandated water conservation from businesses throughout the state and sought to manage groundwater consumption in five counties where overpumping was historically an issue. But some water experts have called for an update to the law to address groundwater supply issues in rural Arizona.
California policymakers enacted a law in 2014 that they hoped would increase aquifer levels through conservation efforts that not only decrease the amount being pumped but also increase water seeping back underground. The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act is still being implemented, as communities and water rights-holders have until 2040 to reach sustainable groundwater levels.
But the law’s outcome is not certain, Ayres said. Water management is a complex web of state and local water authorities, long-held water rights and uncharted legal territory, he said, and the next two decades of implementing this new law will lead to difficult negotiations and sacrifices by both agricultural and urban consumers.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty around solutions and what they will look like,” he said.
Over the past year, the state has added other restrictions for water use, including a call by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom for residents to voluntarily cut their water consumption by 15%, but the state fell far short of that goal. Newsom has resisted a politically fraught statewide water conservation mandate. In 2015, then-Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, ordered communities to cut water consumption by 25%. The cuts ended after a year when heavy rain saturated the state and eased the drought.
Last week, the state also issued emergency regulations that target water waste by residents, including hosing down sidewalks or watering lawns soon after it rains.
These measures have been necessary even after the recent rain and snow brought some relief.
The deluge of the past month soaked much of the Golden State, replenishing dammed reservoirs and underground aquifers, and revitalizing streams that until recently laid dormant and dusty. For a state with nearly 40 million residents in need of drinking water and the country’s largest agricultural industry that provides a tenth of the nation’s crops and livestock, this weather has been essential.
Throughout much of the past year, dangerously depleted reservoirs and lakes fell way below water lines, beaching boats and raising alarm statewide. Reservoirs, though many remain well below their historical average, have risen substantially with recent precipitation.
When considering drought conditions and the low reservoir and groundwater levels going into this winter, the state is still significantly behind healthy water levels, said Michael Dettinger, a research associate at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego.
Drought recovery depends on what Californians and the state does now, said Heather Cooley, director of research at the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based think tank.
There are massive challenges: Overdrafting of the state’s aquifers has been exacerbated by drought, engineers have detected cracks in aqueducts and shallow wells are drying up in some rural areas. And as reservoirs dry up, there are no other major rivers to dam.
Californians can do their part, said Cooley, including by upgrading old appliances (such as dishwashers and toilets), removing grass lawns and replacing them with climate-efficient plants, and fixing leaks. Some communities, from Encinitas up to Santa Clara County, have added requirements for home and business owners to replace inefficient appliances.
California’s State Water Resources Control Board last week ordered local governments to stop using drinking water to water ornamental grass on street medians. Similar policies are being implemented in other drought-ridden states. Neighboring Nevada banned strictly ornamental grass on office parks, outside malls and on road medians.
Further, the state needs to improve its timely access to data and information on water levels and consumption by consumers, said Nell Green Nylen, a senior research fellow with the Wheeler Water Institute at the Center for Law, Energy & the Environment at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. But, she admits, this is challenging in such a complicated management system.
It’s even more challenging to manage a water system that also keeps in mind ecosystems and essential habitats for fish and wildlife, she said. Last year, nearly all the endangered winter-run chinook salmon juvenile population died in the warm Sacramento River, unable to receive cold water from snowmelt.
But all potential solutions require a drastic cultural shift and change of approach that entails sacrifice, Cooley said.
“That shift takes time,” she said. “I think people are making it, but there’s more we can do.”
Stateline is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts that provides daily reporting and analysis on trends in state policy.