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Drought Watch: Improving Environmental Management

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

In the previous Drought Watch we examined the need to modernize the way we track water supply and use to better manage droughts. California also needs to modernize how we manage water for the environment during droughts.

By reducing the quality and quantity of habitat, drought poses a broad ecological challenge to California’s fish and wildlife. The stress is particularly acute in watersheds where native species compete with the demands of cities, farms, and forestry for critical land and water supplies. In many watersheds, remaining habitat has become more suitable for invasive, non-native species, which also compete with native species in various ways. The net result can be significant reductions in populations of native species during severe droughts. Recovery can take years.

In a recent blog post, we joined colleagues from UC Davis, UC Hastings, and Stanford to call for reform in the way the state manages the environment during drought. A common approach is to relax flow and water quality standards prescribed for species protection to make more water available for human needs. This year, the State Water Resources Control Board has already done this on numerous occasions, with the concurrence of state and federal fish and wildlife agencies.

This is not necessarily bad drought policy. Regulators have to make difficult choices when there simply is not enough water to go around. However, the process could be improved. Flow and water quality standards for critically dry years are set well in advance of a drought and involve extensive scientific review. In contrast, relaxing standards receives little review, and the process typically does not incorporate plans to mitigate for the consequences, either during or after the drought.

This same ad hoc approach applies to well-meaning efforts to conserve species during a drought. In late April, the governor released an executive order that instructs the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to help endangered fish species, through actions such as monitoring winter run Chinook salmon, improving habitat on state lands, and seeking cooperation from landowners. These are common-sense measures, but if they had been planned for before the drought, they could have been implemented more quickly.

Money for environmental management during a drought is also an afterthought. In his latest state budget, to be considered by the legislature this summer, the governor has proposed approximately $40 million be made available to support actions contained in his executive order. This is a significant increase over the $2.3 million total allocated in emergency state funding in February. Still, this money will not arrive soon enough to make a major difference for this year. Again, planning ahead to raise such funds would be preferable. (See one alternative approach here.)

Good environmental drought policy must anticipate actions that may be necessary to balance human uses of water with the long-term needs of fish and wildlife. The criteria and scientific basis for the relaxation of flow and water quality standards should be developed, reviewed and adopted before a drought emergency. This includes identifying funding mechanisms for emergency responses and mitigation actions that reduce harm during the drought and lead to recovery of species afterward. If California is lucky enough to get through this drought without significant new harm to our native fish and wildlife, let’s make sure we prepare better before the next drought strikes.

News and analysis of California policy issues from PPIC

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