NRDC Report: Is California Doing Enough to Manage Drought?

Report Card Assesses State Efforts in 5 Key Areas and Identifies Where Brown Administration is Failing

SAN FRANCISCO (December 14, 2015) A report card released today by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) finds that the state is making mixed progress, and, in some cases, failing to invest in 21st century solutions that would promote a healthy economy and environment and make California more resistant to future droughts. The report analyzes the state’s response under Gov. Brown’s leadership to the current drought and assesses successes and shortcomings.


“The state is making decent strides in some areas, while completely falling down on the job in others,” said Kate Poole, litigation director for NRDC’s water program. “The bottom line is that we can take steps to create enough water for the residential, business, and agricultural needs of California, while protecting the healthy environment that Californians deserve. There are truly win-win solutions for dealing with this drought – and the next. But if we don’t grab those opportunities, we’ll continue to fight over the last drop of water left in our rivers, and destroy our ecosystems in the process.”


Thirsting for Progress: A Report Card on California’s Response to the Drought focuses on five categories: urban water conservation and efficiency, agricultural water conservation and efficiency, stormwater capture and reuse, water recycling and reuse, and restoring the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary, which is the hub of California’s water system. These five strategies were identified in a 2014 report by NRDC and the Pacific Institute, The Untapped Potential of California’s Water Supply, and represent the highest-priority strategies to achieve a sustainable and drought-resilient water future, one that better insulates the population and its natural resources from climate change and the variability of the hydrologic cycle.


The report card describes specific ways the state should improve its target-setting, implementation, enforcement, and incentives in each of these sectors. Though the state has made some strides in some key areas, it’s scored particularly poorly in agricultural efficiency, stormwater capture and its management of the Bay-Delta.


“There are hard steps that need to be taken to keep California’s salmon in the picture until the drought passes,” said John McManus, executive director of Golden Gate Salmon Association. “Hopefully the state will find the intestinal fortitude to take some of the common sense, balanced steps outlined in this report to responsibly manage our water resources. Salmon fishing families are hurting badly after a very poor season which demonstrated the damage drought and poor water management has had on salmon.”  


California can create sufficient water to meet its needs, even in a prolonged drought, but much better planning, implementation, and enforcement is required to to rededicate the flows needed to keep the Bay-Delta healthy and realize the untapped potential of agricultural efficiency improvements and stormwater capture.


“More stringent and enforceable runoff requirements, including stormwater capture, will help provide desperately needed water for our region, while protecting our local waterways and communities, and providing thousands of green jobs for the region,” said Bruce Reznik, executive director of Los Angeles Waterkeeper.  



Urban water conservation and efficiency

  • Impact: Urban water use accounts for about 20 percent of California’s overall developed water supply. Improved water conservation and efficiency could reduce urban water use by up to 5.2 million acre-feet annually through measures like replacing thirsty lawns with beautiful succulent gardens and other drought-tolerant landscapes, upgrading household appliances, and repairing leaks.
  • Action: As the drought has lengthened and worsened, the Brown Administration has taken increasingly bold action toward capturing this urban efficiency potential and stretching California’s strained water supplies, now and in the future.
  • Grade: B

Agricultural water conservation and efficiency

  • Impact: Agriculture uses approximately 80 percent of California’s developed water supplies. More efficient irrigation could reduce water use by 5.6 to 6.6 million acre-feet per year while maintaining current acreage levels and crop mix.
  • Action: Although irrigation efficiency has improved recently with adoption of drip and other systems, approximately half of California’s irrigated acreage still uses the outdated and inefficient methods of flood and furrow irrigation. But the state has done little to require or assist farmers to make the transition to more efficient practices, despite multiple tools at its disposal.    
  • Grade: D

Stormwater capture and reuse

  • Impact: Capturing urban stormwater runoff in Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area can increase water supplies by as much as 630,000 acre-feet each year while reducing a leading cause of surface water pollution. Cities and counties can direct stormwater runoff to open spaces, allowing it to infiltrate the ground to recharge groundwater supplies. They can also harvest the runoff, primarily from rooftops, in rain barrels and cisterns for direct non-potable uses.
  • Action: The Brown Administration has not aggressively pursued improved stormwater capture strategies, despite numerous opportunities and the multiple advantages of this approach to enhance local water supply, improve water quality, and expand green space in cities.
  • Grade: D

Water recycling and reuse

  • Impact: Water reuse holds tremendous potential as a drought-resistant water supply for California.  Approximately 5 million acre-feet of municipal wastewater is dumped into the ocean each year in California, a mere 13 percent of which is reused.
  • Action: As of 2010, the state’s water districts recycled approximately 670,000 acre-feet per year, with agriculture and outdoor landscaping accounting for nearly 60 percent of that use.   Since the drought began, the Brown Administration has taken several positive steps to increase the use and availability of recycled water in the future; steps that it must continue to aggressively pursue if the value of this currently wasted resource is to be realized.
  • Grade: B-

Restoring the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary

  • Impact: The San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary (Bay-Delta) is the largest estuary on the west coast of the Americas and supplies water for more than 25 million Californians. It also provides essential habitat for over 700 species of fish and wildlife—many of which are found nowhere else in the world—including several of the state’s iconic Chinook Salmon runs.
  • Action: The Bay-Delta has been subjected to unprecedented stress given the competing demands for water during this historic drought.  Rather than protect this vital resource, the Brown Administration has made a bad situation far worse by repeatedly weakening and waiving measures designed to protect the Delta. The health of the estuary has drastically declined as a result.  Populations of native fish have plummeted, as have most other markers of the estuary’s health.
  • Grade: F



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