Running on Empty: Is California Doing Enough on Drought?

Pacific Institute’s report, Untapped Potential, shows communities are using less water, even with an increase in population. The report also shows that we still have significant opportunities to continue to improve water efficiency and develop cost-effective supplies.

California’s “wet season” officially ended with a whimper on April 1st, the last snow survey of the season showed our snowpack was only 38% of average for this time of year. That means we are heading into what is likely to be another hot, dry summer with near record low water storage in California’s largest reservoirs and not much help in snow reserves to carry us through until it rains or snows again.

Thanks to efforts to improve water efficiency in urban communities, we’re in a better place than we would have been without actions to use water more wisely in our homes, landscapes, and some businesses. Pacific Institute’s recently released report, Untapped Potential, shows that our urban communities were using 32 percent less water in 2017-2019 than in 2007, even with a nine percent increase in population. The report also shows that we still have significant opportunities to continue to improve water efficiency by as much as 48%, as well as develop cost effective new supplies like stormwater capture and recycled water – actions that can make our state more resilient to drought. We also know that we need to improve drought planning and reporting requirements so that they are actually useful as statewide management tools.

Untapped Potential by the Pacific Institute

Unfortunately, California’s unwillingness to adequately change how we manage water in our rivers and reservoirs in the face of ongoing and long-term aridification in California will again result in devastation to our beloved salmon population and the need for emergency actions to prevent water shortages that impact public health and disrupt the economy. While cities across the State have become more efficient, the water saved by improved efficiency does not magically result in increased flows in our rivers to protect fish and wildlife.  With all of our technological advances and focus on climate change, somehow, once more, our “go to” plan for water security is to pray for rain & snow next year.

The state’s failure to effectively plan for droughts – and the over reliance of local agencies on unsustainable water diversions from the Bay-Delta – leads to these kinds of emergency actions that are economically disruptive and environmentally destructive. But here we are, once again, heading into the third year of drought, and not much more prepared than we were in 2015.  Indeed, during this drought the State has once again waived the rules protecting native fish and wildlife in order to increase water diversions from the Bay-Delta, repeating the mistakes made in 2014-2015.

On March 28, 2022, Governor Newsom issued an Executive Order (EO) that aims to address potential shortages in urban and rural communities. The EO had some good things, particularly for rural communities, like the requirement that the issuance of local well permits align with groundwater sustainability before being approved. But for urban communities, the Executive Order doesn’t go far enough. In fact, the EO only asks the State Board to consider emergency actions that include the following:

  • A requirement that urban water suppliers submit a preliminary supply and demand assessment and implement actions under their Tier 2 water shortage contingency plans
  • Banning irrigation of non-functional turf in the commercial, industrial, and institutional sector

I support banning non-functional turf and I would have applauded this EO last April, when California was entering its second year of drought, but the situation we face now is far too dire for half-hearted actions that will yield uncertain results. 

Tier 2 response actions are meant to address a local shortage of up to 20 percent, but because water suppliers can meet this shortage through a mix of conservation and new supplies, we don’t know how much water savings we can expect - other than it will be less than 20 percent. Furthermore, only the local actions identified by water suppliers in their plans are enforceable, not the results, so the conservation actions aren’t even required to produce the demand reductions estimated in the agencies’ plans. And finally, some water agencies have kept some shortage actions in place since the last drought or longer, like Los Angeles Department of Water and Power who has been in Tier 2 since 2010, so it’s unlikely this Executive Order will result in any additional water savings for these agencies.

Drought stricken Lake Hughes, in California

Credit: Photo by Shutter Theory via Flickr

Supply and demand assessments, drought risk assessments, and water shortage contingency plans are all meant to allow for “more local control” – the rally cry of the water suppliers in 2015. But now that they have the control, are they using it to ensure reliable supplies during a multi-year drought? It’s hard to tell, but there is some indication that the answer is no. The 2018 legislation required more uniform plans and regular reporting so that it would be easy to figure out how many suppliers were in each stage of shortage and what actions they were taking. Specifically, SB 606 (Hertzberg) required there to be “six standard water shortage levels corresponding to progressive ranges of up to 10, 20, 30, 40, and 50 percent shortages and greater than 50 percent shortage,” but the implementation of this important requirement has failed.  This excel spreadsheet of monthly reported data shows over 100 different responses to the question about which shortage level water suppliers have implemented. Responses include “extraordinary,” “high,” “minimal,” and “Stage C.” Clearly, this system isn’t improving the state’s ability to oversee water shortages and response actions and ensure reliable water supply for Californians. There is also no consistent reporting on demand reductions expected in each stage by each water supplier, so it is difficult to judge whether the local response actions are effective.

What Should We Do?

California has already received most, if not all, the precipitation that will fall this water year and we don’t know how long this drought will last. Every drop we save now is a drop that can stay in storage for the dry times ahead.  Voluntary conservation didn’t work in the last drought, it hasn’t worked this time, and the steps we took in 2018 to allow for local control to address shortages haven’t been implemented appropriately. Governor Newsom should require mandatory conservation before it’s too late. 

As a result of the 2018 legislation to “Make Water Conservation a California Way of Life”, the state now has the data needed to set individualized water reduction targets based on how efficiently water is being used in urban water supplier districts. These customized conservation targets would address the fairness concerns water suppliers had about the mandatory conservation targets required in 2015 because they would take into consideration local conditions like climate and parcel size. Hopefully this Executive Order conveys the urgency of the moment and helps people and water agencies take more aggressive actions to save water. If not, I urge Governor Newsom to mandate conservation and consider use of the water efficiency framework to assign demand reduction targets.

We must also improve the planning and reporting requirements so that they are actually useful as statewide management tools. Water shortage contingency plan guidelines need to be updated so that demand reduction actions that have been in place for years are considered baseline actions (Tier 0) and the water shortage response actions in each tier are designed to achieve new water savings. We must also simplify the monthly reporting. For example, the question about implemented shortage levels should be restricted to integers of "0" through "6", and suppliers should also be asked when that level was implemented. That way we can quickly determine how many agencies statewide are experiencing shortages, to what degree, and what a call for statewide action might achieve.


This landscape’s dry stream bed collects and routes stormwater to rain gardens and a 1,400-gallon pond.

Credit: US EPA

Despite decades of drought and broad acceptance of the increasing aridification of the west, California is still not prepared for drought, and climate change will make things much harder (DWR predicts that by 2050, there’s a 50% chance that any year will be a severe drought like 2013-2015), so we need to increase water use efficiency, ensure access to water efficiency programs by low income households, and invest in local water supply projects like LA’s regional recycling project, to better prepare SoCal for next year – and the next drought. 


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