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Press Release · August 19, 2015

If Drought Continues: Environment and Poor Rural Communities Most Likely to Suffer

Urban Areas in Best Shape, Farmers Adapting but Vulnerable

SAN FRANCISCO, August 19, 2015—If the California drought continues another two to three years, the state will face increasingly acute challenges in two areas: water supply in some low-income rural communities, where wells are running dry; and ecosystems, where the state’s iconic biodiversity is under severe threat and wildfire risk is growing to new extremes. Farmers have been hit hard, but are adapting. The state’s cities and suburbs are in the best shape to withstand more years of drought, thanks to investments in diversified water supplies and improved demand-management.

These are some of the key findings of a new report released today by the PPIC Water Policy Center.

The report—which draws on wide-ranging data sources and conversations with officials, businesses, and stakeholders on the frontlines of drought management—finds that wells in some rural communities are expected to run dry at an increasing pace. As of July 2015, more than 2,000 dry wells were reported in communities that are home to some of California’s most vulnerable residents.

California’s freshwater habitats and forested lands, which have already been severely affected, will continue to face huge challenges and force difficult trade-offs. These could include the extinction of as many as 18 species of native fish, including most salmon runs; and high mortality for waterbirds that use the Pacific Flyway. Continued drought also brings a high risk of one or more severe fires that would affect local communities, watersheds, wildlife, infrastructure, and air quality.

In agriculture, roughly 550,000 acres will be fallowed for each year the drought continues, according to a new report by UC Davis for the California Department of Food and Agriculture. The study estimates the annual cost of water shortages to the state’s economy at more than $2.8 billion and more than 21,000 full-time, part-time, and seasonal jobs. Extra groundwater pumping will continue to be a key tool to reduce agricultural economic losses over the short term. There are still abundant groundwater reserves in many places, and high commodity prices make this extra pumping affordable—but it will contribute to dry wells and sinking lands in some areas.

Cities will need to continue to diversify their water sources and manage demand if the drought continues, but are likely to avoid extreme scarcity. The state’s economy, which grew faster than the US economy as a whole during the drought thus far, will continue to show only minimal impacts, in part due to urban areas’ resilience.

“This drought is serving as a stress test for California’s water management systems,” said Ellen Hanak, director of the Water Policy Center and a co-author of the report. “Californians have worked hard to limit its impacts, but the experience has also revealed major gaps in our readiness to cope with the droughts we expect in the future.”

The report says that ongoing drought will increase the need for emergency actions to get drinking water to rural communities and prevent extinctions of fish and large-scale death of waterbirds. The state also needs to start longer-term planning to build resilience so that fewer decisions are made on an emergency basis. Some key areas where both short- and long-term drought planning is essential include:

  • Groundwater: State and federal support is needed now for tools to facilitate implementation of the new groundwater law. Addressing short-term impacts of pumping, such as harm to infrastructure from sinking lands, may require charging fees or limiting new wells in some areas. Longer term, better management of groundwater will ensure it continues to serve as the primary drought supply.
  • Rural Communities: Emergency support programs need to expand and improve. Priorities include making it easier for individuals to seek help if their wells run dry. Because many dry wells are unlikely to return to normal even after rains return, longer term solutions are needed to address water supply and quality in these communities.
  • Biodiversity: Short term, strategies to improve flows for imperiled fish may help. Expanding the state’s program of conservation hatcheries—those specifically run to protect biodiversity—could also stave off some extinctions. Similarly, risks to waterbirds could be reduced by paying farmers to temporarily flood fields at key times. A long term drought plan for ecosystems is needed.
  • Wildfires: Suppressing fires is the only real short-term option, but this will become harder if forest conditions worsen. A long-term strategy of improved forestry and fire management—with strong federal participation—is needed, and will require sustained efforts over large areas for decades.

“If the drought continues, emergency programs will need to be significantly expanded to get drinking water to rural residents and prevent major losses of waterbirds and extinctions of native fish species,” said Jeffrey Mount, senior fellow at the PPIC Water Policy Center. “California needs a longer-term effort to build drought resilience in the most vulnerable areas.”

The report, What If the California Drought Continues?, is supported with funding from the California Water Foundation, an initiative of the Resources Legacy Fund. The authors, in addition to Hanak and Mount, are Caitrin Chappelle, associate director of the PPIC Water Policy Center; Jay Lund, adjunct fellow at PPIC and director of the University of California, Davis, Center for Watershed Sciences; Josué Medellín-Azuara, senior researcher at the Center for Watershed Sciences; Peter Moyle, associate director of the Center for Watershed Sciences; and Nathaniel Seavy, research director for the Pacific Coast and Central Valley at Point Blue Conservation Science.


The PPIC Water Policy Center spurs innovative water management solutions that support a healthy economy, environment, and society—now and for future generations. It connects timely, objective, nonpartisan research to real-world water management debates, with the goal of putting California water policy on a sustainable and construc­tive path. The center was launched in April 2015.


PPIC is dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.