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Managing California’s Freshwater Ecosystems: Lessons from the 2012-16 Drought

Summary

The 2012–16 drought caused unprecedented stress to California’s ecosystems and pushed many native species to the brink of extinction. It also tested the laws, policies, and institutions charged with protecting the environment. Eight case studies on environmental water management during the drought reveal both strengths and weaknesses in federal, state, and local response that can inform how California addresses future droughts. Three areas of reform hold promise for improving ecosystem conditions and reducing conflict:
  • Improve water accounting. Drought management requires accurate and timely information about water use and availability and about likely environmental response to changes in water supply. But California’s current tracking systems are neither timely nor transparent. To address these gaps, environmental water accounting and ecosystem monitoring systems need an overhaul.
  • Prepare for drought. With a few significant exceptions, environmental water managers were unprepared for the environmental consequences of an extended drought, and were forced to make ad hoc decisions during a crisis. Developing watershed-level plans that set ecosystem priorities and identify trade-offs would help managers anticipate drought and drive implementation of habitat investments and water allocation. Annual watering plans that guide management under different types of water years would better engage and inform water users.
  • Develop ecosystem water budgets. Current methods of allocating water to support ecosystem health rely on minimum flow standards that are unevenly enforced and often insufficient during drought. Ecosystem water budgets, which allocate a portion of water to the ecosystem within watersheds, could enable more flexible and effective water management during dry times.
Although state and federal agencies have important roles in implementing these reforms, negotiated settlement agreements involving water users, environmentalists, and other key stakeholders hold the most promise for initiating durable and effective new approaches.
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