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Drought Watch: Lessons from the Past

Ellen Hanak January 26, 2014

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

As California’s drought crisis unfolds, there will be calls from many quarters for extraordinary actions to help reduce the economic and social costs to communities and sectors at risk. California’s leaders in Sacramento, Washington, D.C., and around the state will need to weigh the pressure to act against the risk of making snap decisions that provide short-term relief yet have much higher long-term costs. As I describe in a commentary for the San Francisco Chronicle – written with PPIC adjunct fellow and UC Davis Professor Jay Lund – water agencies have fallen into this trap when responding to some past droughts. For instance, excessive pumping from the Delta during the 1987–92 drought contributed to the establishment of some invasive species that have plagued management of this system ever since.

Fortunately, there are also positive lessons from past droughts that can help guide today’s actions. One is that a water market – which allows those with relatively ample supplies to lease water to those who don’t – can significantly reduce costs to cities, farms, and the environment. The governor has called for steps to make this kind of trading easier. Another lesson is that communities that diversify their supply sources and establish stronger linkages with neighboring water systems are better able to weather droughts. Parts of the state that are out ahead on this – including Southern California and much of the Bay Area – are in better shape today thanks to these investment.

News and analysis of California policy issues from PPIC

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