The Strengths and Weaknesses of California’s Drought

Since the last major drought of the late 1980’s to the early 1990’s, most urban areas in California have invested in resources to boost water resilience and have adapted to cope with the dry weather. But in some rural areas, drinking water wells have gone dry, forcing environmental water managers to allocate fish, birds and other wildlife away from scarce water flows.

California has many options for meeting current and future demands. For example:

  • the cost effective option for expansion of non-traditional sources —such as recycled wastewater and captured stormwater
  • the use of water efficient technologies — waterfree urinals and the hybrid
  • the sale or leasing of water, also known as water marketing
  • increase the efficiency to transfer water to growing urban areas, and from lower-to higher revenue crops.

To improve supply reliability, in 2014 California enacted historic legislation to improve groundwater management, giving local agencies authority to implement sustainable practices and address contamination problems. Typically, groundwater supplies a third of all water; however, during dry years, this rate increases to compensate for the lack of rain. Without limits on pumping in normal and wet years, many basins use this resource unsustainably, ultimately preventing groundwater recovery.

Garibaldi swims in the kelp forest, sunlight filters through towering giant kelp plants rising from the ocean bottom to the surface, underwater.
Garibaldi, California’s state fish, swim in the kelp forest, sunlight filters through towering giant kelp plants rising from the ocean bottom to the surface, underwater.

An important indicator of overall ecosystem health is the populations of native fish. Because of costly water supply restrictions, wastewater and flood protection projects, their decline and protection have conflicted with other management goals. However, the state should create a more comprehensive and coordinated environmental approach to support California’s aquatic ecosystems and the life systems that depend on them.

The diversification of water supplies in some small communities has improved the ability to weather drought conditions, demonstrating that new plumbing codes, water conservation technologies — such as Falcon’s high performance water conservation technologies — rebates and better pricing incentives have all caused urban water efficiency to rise.

There is no doubt that California’s future is a dry one. As a result, Governor Jerry Brown issued an executive order on May 9th, in an effort to ensure a drought resilient state for decades to come.  Traditional water infrastructure —dams, aqueducts and groundwater wells — still provides great benefits to cities and industrial agriculture, but their escalating limitations are evident, in the form of ecological devastation and higher costs to consumers. Our growing population needs to rethink and imagine solutions that can sustainably address the needs of both human and natural ecosystems together.