Five years into this drought—with the possibility of a sixth on the way—what have we learned about addressing the diverse challenges of scarce water supplies? A PPIC Water Policy Center event in Sacramento last week brought together experts to discuss four of the state’s key policy challenges: strengthening urban drought resilience, managing groundwater in rural areas, addressing declining ecosystem health, and ensuring safe drinking water in disadvantaged communities.
The far-ranging conversations took the audience on a virtual tour of California’s drought hot spots. It included Central Valley towns subsisting on bottled water after local wells dried up, stressed rivers and streams with numerous fish species on the brink of extinction, and farmers anticipating big changes to rural economies as a law to maintain sustainable groundwater levels is implemented.
Ellen Hanak, director of the PPIC Water Policy Center, gave an overview of how California is managing the complex and interrelated challenges of this persistent drought. The experience can help us better prepare for future droughts and a warming climate, she said.
Cities have weathered the drought fairly well. But many urban water systems—which supply about 90 percent of California’s population—struggled to implement the statewide water conservation mandate issued by Governor Brown in April 2015, panelists noted. Now that the mandate is no longer in force, the focus is on encouraging long term water efficiency—especially for outdoor landscape water use.
A panel on the complex challenges of implementing the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act raised the need for better data to inform decision making. Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, said a big challenge for the law is “how do we create trust so that everyone will be engaged,” especially given the many challenges facing farming communities right now.
Managing water for the environment during drought was the focus of the third panel. Jeff Mount, senior fellow at the PPIC Water Policy Center, noted that California’s aquatic ecosystems “are in perpetual drought … because of how we manage water.” He argued that we must focus on managing ecosystems rather than trying to save individual species on the brink.
Water shortages and poor water quality have also made life difficult in a number of disadvantaged rural communities—the focus of the last panel. Hundreds of communities have experienced drying wells, nitrate pollution, and other problems that threaten their water supplies.
Laurel Firestone, co-director of the Community Water Center, noted that while addressing this crisis has become a growing priority in California, more needs to be done locally and nationally to address inequities in access to safe drinking water. “Our lack of action is costing vastly more … than if we got ahead of the problem and solved it,” she said.
We invite you to watch the videos from this event, and hope you find the discussions illuminating and useful:
- Welcome and Introduction by Ellen Hanak
- Building Drought Resilience in Urban Communities
- Implementing the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act
- Environmental Impacts, Endangered Species Act, and Extinction
- Disadvantaged Communities and Access to Safe Drinking Water
Read California’s Water (PPIC Briefing Kit, October 2016)
Visit the Policy Priorities for California’s Water YouTube page
Visit the PPIC Water Policy Center