- California has been in a major drought.
Droughts are a recurring feature of California’s climate, and the three-year period between fall 2011 and fall 2014 was the driest since recordkeeping began in 1895. This dry period was made worse by high temperatures, with 2014 setting a record. Even if 2015 sees average rainfall, it will not be enough to eliminate the severe water deficit. Governor Brown declared a statewide drought emergency in January 2014, establishing an interagency drought response team. The State Water Resources Control Board later chose to enforce increased conservation requirements. To improve water efficiency and help affected communities and ecosystems, state and federal lawmakers approved more than $1 billion of emergency drought relief in 2014.
- Effects of the drought are being felt differently around the state.
Households and non-farm businesses account for about 20% of human water use in California. Major metropolitan areas in Southern California and the Bay Area are still relatively well supplied, thanks to significant investments in conservation, supply diversification, and new infrastructure that allows communities to share water during emergencies. But in northern and central parts of the state, communities without diverse water sources have faced sharp cutbacks in water use, and some have received emergency supplies from the state. If the drought continues in 2015, many more cities will begin to experience significant shortages. One important way to conserve is by using less water for landscaping, which currently makes up roughly half of all urban water use.
- The drought has been particularly hard on the agricultural sector.
Most farming in California depends on irrigation, which usually accounts for about 80% of the state’s human water use. In 2014 growers lost about 6.6 million acre-feet of surface water because of the drought. A significant increase in groundwater pumping made up for 75% of that loss, and farm-to-farm water sales also helped farmers keep valuable orchards and vineyards alive. But large cuts in crop acreage were unavoidable, leading to the loss of $2.2 billion in revenues and 17,100 seasonal, part-time, and full-time jobs. Although the agricultural sector is a relatively small share of California’s economy (1–2% of state gross domestic product), water cutbacks cause hardship in many farm communities—and in sectors that support farming, such as fertilizer sales and industries that process farm products. Continued drought will exacerbate these effects.
- Wildlife and fish are also being hit hard.
Some coastal streams are so depleted that scientists are worried about the disappearance of coho salmon and steelhead trout. Wildlife refuges that provide vital habitat for migratory birds and other species have also faced shortfalls. More generally, the state is facing difficult tradeoffs, such as whether to retain cold water in reservoirs to maintain endangered salmon or release this water either to protect smelt in the Delta or to support wildlife refuges. The state has already relaxed environmental flow standards to reserve some water supplies for farms and cities and is under pressure to do more.
- Droughts generate opportunities to improve water policies.
Droughts encourage better water management, including increased conservation and investments in new supplies —such as recycled wastewater, groundwater storage, and stormwater collection. In 2014, significant reforms were signed into law, laying the basis for more sustainable management of groundwater—an especially valuable resource during droughts. There are many opportunities to make progress in these and other areas. This drought may also be a useful warning about future conditions—climate change simulations indicate that droughts are likely to increase in frequency and severity.
Sources: California Department of Fish and Wildlife, California Department of Public Health (community data), California Department of Water Resources (water use data), U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (GDP data), and Western Regional Climate Center (precipitation data).
Supported with funding from the California Water Foundation, an initiative of the Resources Legacy Fund and the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation.