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Drought Watch: Drought Declarations and Water Policy

Jeffrey Mount January 21, 2014
OrovilleRiver

This is part of a continuing series on the impact of the drought.

As this year unfolds, California will have to come to grips with the significant consequences of the drought emergency declared by Governor Brown. Drought Watch will be a regular feature on this blog, tracking the drought and its policy consequences.

As droughts go, this one is both brutal and unprecedented. We are in the grips of a “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge,” a term coined by Daniel Swain of Stanford University for the high-pressure area that has been pushing storms to the north of us for over a year now. Coupled with the low rainfall and warm temperatures over the previous two years, this dry period is impressive.

Rain and snow in the Sierra Nevada—the state’s most important source of water— are at historic lows, passing our benchmark dry years of 1976–77. Statewide, reservoirs are at near-record lows. In many areas, soil moisture—a critical indicator of the health of our forest and agricultural soils—is as low as it’s ever been for this time of year. Perhaps the most significant indicator, flow in rivers, is grim, setting unprecedented records for low flows during January. Both low soil moisture and record low river flows tell us that we may be witnessing a slowly unfolding ecological train wreck from which it will take many years to recover.

Already we are seeing dramatic proposals for water rationing in communities that failed to diversify their sources of drinking water. California’s recession-proof farm community is unlikely to be drought-proof. Orchard crops—California’s famous fruits and nuts—will be especially vulnerable. The drought will also increase pressure on already over-tapped groundwater basins in the San Joaquin Valley and the Central Coast.

History teaches us a few key lessons about drought. First, as the governor says, he can’t make it rain. He also cannot produce water where it isn’t, though he can make it easier to move water from one place to another. The declaration of an emergency gives the administration and the State Water Resources Control Board, the body that regulates water rights and sets flow and water quality standards, some additional flexibility to facilitate voluntary water transfers and—if things get dire enough—to decide who gets water in an emergency.

The second lesson is that natural disasters often spur longer-term policy changes. That will undoubtedly be the case this year, since major water policy issues are teed up for debate and decisions. The drought will influence our thinking about solutions to the Delta, our chronic overdraft of groundwater, and our struggle to balance water supply reliability and ecosystem health throughout the state.

A crisis can be useful in stimulating action. The challenge for the governor is to ensure that it leads to good policy that paves the way for a better water future—and stays away from short-term, expedient fixes. While popular in a crisis, these can make it harder to manage water when the rains return . . . and they will return, eventually.

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