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California 2015: Isn't This Just Another Drought to Manage?

By now, the news about California’s mandated 25% water conservation target is national and international news. On April 1st, the California Department of Water Resources found only 1.4 inches of water content in the Sierra Snowpack, only 5% of the historical average for the first of the month. Since snowmelt accounts for around 30 percent of the State of California’s water supply in normal years, and California’s major reservoirs (Shasta and Oroville) stand at 73 and 67 percent of historic averages, Governor Brown has mandated conservation targets for municipal water suppliers.

Is this a Drought Management effort? Or has long-term, transformative Water Conservation begun? And if the latter, why is it happening now instead of earlier?

Historically, water conservation and drought management have been separate yet complementary actions by water suppliers and utilities (much as energy efficiency and emergency demand response function in the energy sector). Water Conservation is a prolonged, transforming effort designed to reduce the demand for water, improve the efficiency of its use, and reduce losses and waste (see, for example, Drought Management is a short-term effort, focusing primarily on behavioral changes, to manage consumption until normal water supply conditions resume. Typically, Drought Management efforts don’t start until predetermined “trigger” events, such as reservoir levels falling below capacity thresholds (e.g., 60 percent of capacity, 30 percent of capacity).

The State of California has hardly been idle during this period of drought (2013-present). Last Spring, the Metropolitan Water District (water supplier to 19 million people) vastly expanded their conservation program funding, doubling incentives for turf removal, extending programs for toilet replacements, and increasing funding to convert irrigation systems from potable to recycled water. This builds on a 50-fold increase in water conservation spending from the turn of the century until the present. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, total water withdrawals in California fell from 46 billion gallons per day in 2005 to 38 billion gallons per day in 2010, highlighting significant efficiency gains during periods of population growth. Given the fact that California has endured significant, multi-year droughts before (notably in 1923-1924 and 1976-1977), and that the average statewide reservoir capacity was 97 percent in 2012, why shouldn’t we conclude that we’re seeing another logical, massive Drought Management effort to get California through to the next precipitation cycle?

[Source: California’s Most Significant Droughts: Comparing Historical and Recent Conditions, California Department of Water Resources, February 2015.]

The main reason to hope that this may be a “watershed moment” that creates lasting, structural change is due to heightened uncertainty surrounding the current climate pattern. According to NASA and NOAA, 9 of the 10 hottest years ever recorded have occurred since 2000, with 2014 as the hottest on record. These temperature increases could power the California drought in ways not seen in prior drought cycles, both in terms of reduced precipitation and increased evaporation from surface water reservoirs. It is possible that this drought could last longer than prior cycles, or that interim “wet years” might not restore reservoirs as in the past.

To respond to the risk and uncertainty, California needs to chart a “no regrets” path forward that balances water supply, water pricing, conservation technologies and practices, and behavior changes. Given the global pattern of increasing temperatures, California risks being more susceptible to drought conditions for years to come. Since Water Conservation pursues long-lasting changes in water use patterns, it is time to shelve the debate about Water Conservation versus Drought Management - it's time for “Water-Conservation-as-Drought-Management.” California's actions may set the stage nationally for an even bigger change, a recognition that – heading into the future – there really is no longer any difference between the two approaches to manage our water use.

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