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Lessons on Sustaining the Environment During Drought

Jeffrey Mount June 23, 2016
Reflections Of Trees And Sky On A Calmly Flowing River

California and Victoria, Australia, are both drought-prone states that face major challenges in managing freshwater-dependent ecosystems and native species during dry times. Both states have experienced intense controversy over balancing water for environmental needs and agricultural and urban uses. But while California’s environment has suffered greatly during its latest drought—with many species pushed to the brink of extinction—Victoria avoided serious biological losses during an even longer drought. Equally important, Victoria enacted a suite of policy changes that improved water management for all sectors, not just the environment, and reduced conflict.

A new report by the PPIC Water Policy Center examines how Victoria allocates water for the environment during times of extreme scarcity. We identify four key lessons from Victoria’s experience that could improve how California manages water for the environment during drought. These include:

  • Plan for drought rather than simply react to it: Victoria adopted planning processes that make it easier to set priorities for managing species during times of extreme scarcity, help build species’ resilience during normal and wet years, and promote recovery of populations when drought ends. Extensive community involvement in these plans has improved the public’s understanding of environmental water management actions, resulting in reduced tensions. California lacks environmental drought plans, relying instead on decision making during an emergency, rather than before.
  • Strengthen state and federal partnerships: Victoria’s success in managing drought relied on strong support from the Australian federal government. Although federal-state coordination in the West has improved during the current drought, the federal government—despite its key responsibilities in regulating and providing water resources—has not played a significant role in anticipating or reducing the effects of drought on California’s environment.
  • Recognize a water right for the environment: Victoria granted the environment a water right with equal priority to urban and agricultural uses. Environmental water managers are provided with resources to build and manage an extensive water portfolio, and participate in a robust, well-managed water market. Although California has some water rights allocated to the environment, volumes are relatively small and cannot be flexibly managed. Efforts to acquire significant permanent supplies for environmental uses have been limited by a lack of funding.
  • Treat environmental water as equal to other uses: In Australia, the environment has an equal “seat at the table” in water negotiations and the opportunity to be a partner in constructing water management solutions. This enables a more flexible, ecosystem-based approach to managing environmental water. In California, the highest environmental priority is avoiding extinction of native species protected by state and federal endangered species acts. This creates the perception that the environment is a constraint rather than an integrated priority in water management.

California has made some important advances in environmental water management during the current drought, including enacting historic legislation to reform groundwater management, developing new standards for environmental flows in a few basins, and allocating bond funds to purchase water rights for the environment. But much more needs to be done to improve drought resilience and to reduce conflict over environmental water allocations in future droughts. The Victorian experience shows that better planning and the right tools can reduce uncertainty for all parties and increase flexibility for environmental management. It’s a model worth exploring here in California.

Learn more

Read “California’s Environment Needs a Water Budget” (PPIC blog, December 14, 2015)
Read a summary of policy recommendations from Improving the Federal Response to Western Drought (February 2016)
Visit the PPIC Water Policy Center’s drought resource page

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