Managing Drought in a Changing Climate: Four Essential Reforms 

This Public Policy Institute of California report examines climate change impacts on water resources in California, and the state’s capacity for adaptation to water scarcity and drought. California’s 2012–2016 drought - which was the hottest in the state’s recorded history and one of the driest - is used to assess water management and responses from that time in four sectors: cities and suburbs, irrigated agriculture, rural communities, and freshwater ecosystems. Policy and management reforms are recommended for drought planning, water infrastructure and operations, water rights administration, and funding.

The Institute suggests that examining the consequences of the 2012–16 drought, can provide guidance as to how climate change may affect the vulnerability of the various sectors in the future. The assessment found that overall, urban communities are less vulnerable than agriculture to water scarcity, and rural communities and freshwater ecosystems are the most vulnerable. The analysis of the drought implications on these sectors is detailed in the report. Here are some of the results:

Cities and Suburbs: The urban water sector had minimal social and economic disruption to residents and businesses - attributed to major improvements since the previous extended drought (1987?92). These improvements included:

  • investments in new surface and groundwater storage,
  • new conveyance to enable emergency supply sharing with neighboring water systems,
  • water trading agreements to acquire new supplies,
  • long-term reductions in indoor water use, and
  • development of alternative water supplies such as desalination and wastewater recycling.

Nonetheless, not all urban utilities were prepared for a drought of this severity and several required extreme conservation measures and/or experienced financial problems.

Agriculture: The state’s largest farming region of Central Valley experienced around a 50% reduction in surface water supplies at the height of the drought. The agriculture sector relies more on unmanaged use of groundwater to address deficits - and in some regions this exacerbated long-term problems associated with groundwater overdraft, where pumping regularly exceeds replenishment. Areas with well-managed groundwater banks, such as parts of Kern County, demonstrated greater resilience to water shortages.

Rural communities: These small communities are found to lack the financial resources or capacity to address water supply and quality problems. The Institute determined that there are no long-term plans or solutions in place to address the vulnerability of rural community drinking water supplies during severe droughts.

Ecosystem management: Three significant problems were identified regarding managing for ecosystem resilience to drought: insufficient information - including biological monitoring and tracking of water availability; insufficient planning for drought; and that current approaches to allocating environmental water are too inflexible for managing ecosystems during drought.

The four key recommended reforms are given for water policy and management in California. As described in the report, these include:

  • Plan ahead. Stronger drought planning is critically important for urban water management, groundwater sustainability, safe drinking water in rural communities, and freshwater ecosystems.
  • Upgrade the water grid. California needs a comprehensive program to address above- and below-ground storage, conveyance, and operational challenges by mid-century, including repairing facilities that are broken, expanding conveyance and storage capacity, and modernizing and integrating operations.
  • Update water allocation rules. California should comprehensively update its water allocation governance. The goals should be to find equitable and efficient ways to allocate limited supplies among competing demands during dry times while promoting efforts to capture and store water during wet times.
  • Find the money. Reliable funding is crucial for adapting to climate change. New sources are needed to pay for necessary water-management investments and to fill funding gaps in the state’s water system.


Publication Date: September 6, 2018

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