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Press Release · March 16, 2015

Lessons from the Drought

State Should Improve Water-use Information, Promote Conservation, Strengthen Environmental Management

Lessons from California’s current drought—and from Australia’s response to its Millennium Drought—can help the state prepare for continued water scarcity, according to a report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

The report recommends ways to address weaknesses in four areas of drought resilience and response. It builds on discussions with leaders from state and local agencies, legislators, and stakeholder groups at PPIC’s Managing Drought conference.

  • Manage water more tightly, with better information. California needs to modernize the way it tracks water supply and use, as Australia—with a similar climate and economy—did during its decade-long drought at the beginning of the century. New technologies, such as automated gaging, remote sensing, and improved hydrologic models, can help predict water flow and quality. The state should require more accurate and timely reporting of water diversions and discharges. For example, some water-rights holders are only required to report every three years on the amount of water they use on farms or deliver to urban customers.
  • Set clear priorities for public health and the environment. The State Water Resources Control Board sparked controversy last year when it ordered some water agencies, farmers, and other property owners to stop diverting water from rivers and streams. These curtailments were based solely on the seniority of water rights. Other factors—such as public health and safety and the environment—also need to be considered. California can reduce future uncertainty and controversy by identifying clear priorities—including amounts required to meet urgent needs—and testing procedures in “dry runs” that simulate droughts, along the lines of earthquake or fire drills.
  • Promote conservation and resilient supplies. California’s cities and farms need to make more progress in managing demand and developing reliable water supplies. Landscape irrigation—which accounts for roughly half of urban water use—can be reduced if local water agencies use financial incentives to encourage customers to replace lawns. In particular, agencies can use tiered pricing, which charges customers higher rates per gallon for greater water use. Local agencies should also continue to invest in nontraditional supplies, such as recycled water and captured stormwater. In the area of groundwater management, the landmark law passed last year is a promising step toward managing this resource, which is critical to the health of the agricultural economy. But it gives basins more than 25 years to attain sustainability. The state can boost local efforts to expedite the process with additional legislation and technical assistance, especially in areas without a history of groundwater management.
  • Modernize environmental drought management. State and federal fish and wildlife agencies made great efforts to reduce environmental harm but did so mainly without coordinated planning or strong scientific review. There is no strategy for species recovery when the drought ends—a costly long-term regulatory issue that could limit future water supply and hydropower. To guide drought management, an aquatic and wetland plan should be developed by a biodiversity task force made up of independent experts, working closely with agency personnel.

“Making these changes will entail some costs, but it will be worth the effort,” said Jeffrey Mount, PPIC senior fellow and coauthor of the report. “Droughts are a recurring feature of the state’s climate, and it’s essential that we improve our ability to weather them—now and in the future.”

In addition to Mount, the authors of Policy Priorities for Managing Drought are PPIC senior fellow Ellen Hanak; PPIC research associate Caitrin Chappelle; Brian Gray, law professor at UC Berkeley Hastings College; Jay Lund, PPIC adjunct fellow and director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis; Peter Moyle, professor in the Department of Wildlife Fish and Conservation Biology; and Barton “Buzz” Thompson, law professor at Stanford Law School and director of the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford.

The report is supported with funding from the California Water Foundation, an initiative of the Resources Legacy Fund.


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.