Did California learn anything from the last drought? ‘Gambling’ with water continues

The Governor of California stood on a patch of brown hay as he announced:

“We are in a new era. The idea of ​​your little green lawn being watered a lot every day – that will be a thing of the past,” he said. “We are in the midst of a historic drought and that requires unprecedented action.”

But it wasn’t Gavin Newsom speaking—it was the state’s predecessor, Jerry Brown, and the year was 2015.

Seven years later, California once again faces urgent calls for cuts as heatwaves, record droughts and climate change converge to create an extremely short supply. . But what has California learned since then? Is Golden State really ready to do this again?

Yes and no, experts say. While some of the promises made during the previous drought – including greater investment in water collection and recycling – have been enhanced or maintained, progress has been slow and conservation work has been slow. is going downhill. Furthermore, well drilling is still threatening the state’s groundwater supplies, and fish and forests continue to suffer as the region grows drier.

Felicia Marcus, a fellow at Stanford University’s Water in the West program, said: “In some respects, the way we use water is quite similar to gambling. “We’ll have to learn to hold back normal times to see us pass longer dry periods – and more frequent dry spells – under climate change.”

Here’s a look at where we are today:


In 2016, then-Government. Brown lifted the last statewide drought emergency, he also issued an executive order pledging to make water conservation a “way of life” in California.

The state has largely responded to the call, keeping per capita daily water use at around 90 gallons for the next several years, according to the report. status data. But Californians dropped, and used about 18 percent more water in April than they did in the same month of 2020, the year the current drought began.

However, some experts say the big picture is still promising.

“We’ve always slipped back after a drought, but we’ve slipped back to the point where it’s not as high as it was before the drought, and that’s how we do it,” said Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute. I make progress in conservation work. California.

Indeed, many Californians have made lasting changes that reduce overall usage, including upgrading devices to be more efficient and generally more conscious of their consumption. An increasing number of residents are also taking advantage of programs that help convert lawns into drought-tolerant landscapes.

What’s more, the past drought prompted a flurry of legislation that led to more stringent requirements for water suppliers in the area, Mount said. Congress Bill 1668 and Senate Bill 606, passed in 2018, require public agencies to set long-term performance standards and standardize their water shortage contingency plans.

“Droughts are really important because they drive policy,” says Mount. “Having two major droughts in 10 years is pretty extreme, but it’s pushing things in the right direction.”

However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. In fact, a recent study by the Pacific Institute found that California can still reduce urban water use by as much as 48 percent through a range of existing technologies and efficiency improvements.

The co-founder of the Pacific Institute, Peter Gleick, has criticized the state’s recent setbacks and criticized the authorities for not acting sooner.

“State officials didn’t sound the alarm in the way they needed to to help the public understand, first of all, that it really was a crisis, and second, that there were things they could do and do. should do,” he said.


Perhaps the biggest advance due to the last drought was the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014, a historic law intended to tackle over-pumping and help regulate the state’s supply.

During dry times, many Californians — especially agricultural users — rely heavily on groundwater, especially when faced with transportation cuts from the state. However, experts say that the accumulation of water by wells not only depletes groundwater resources, but it also contributes to land subsidence.

Jay Lund, co-director of the Center for Watershed Science at UC Davis, said California has made some progress in implementing better regulation and management of groundwater, but the state is still a long way off. sustainability.

“You have to find a way in the non-drought years to return the water that you pumped out of the ground, and that’s a big change, and I don’t know that everyone understands that,” Lund said.

Part of the problem is that the SGMA has set an implementation timeline that spans more than two decades, leading to frenzied well drilling even in the face of two back-to-back droughts. Now, thousands of home wells in the Central Valley and other areas are at risk of running out, and policymakers have acknowledged the law’s flaws.

In an effort to slow some of that drilling, Newsom this year signed an executive order requiring local groundwater agencies to verify that new wells align with sustainability plans. . Additionally, the proposed law, AB 2201, seeks to make that change permanent.

But in the meantime, some California communities have lost their water, while others are dealing with contaminated supplies.

Ms. Marcus, who also served as chair of the state’s water board during the last drought, remains optimistic about the SGMA, especially since the state is using its powers to “call for attacks and shutdowns.” public” for inadequate local management plans, she said.

“It’s a more iterative process, so the judges will see if it works in the long term,” says Marcus, but “if it works, it’s going to be more sustainable and long-lasting.” than the other way around. What we’re aiming for at SGMA is long-term sustainability – not an immediate drought fix. ”


There have also been other promises. In 2018, LA County voters passed Measure W, a massive tax intended in part to capture more rainwater before it ends up in the ocean.

Earlier this year, a Times review found that the county had only partially disbursed funds for the project, and construction was slowing despite the urgent need to increase water supply. Although the project could eventually capture 98 billion gallons of water annually, it could take up to 50 years to build the system, officials said.

Bruce Reznik, whom the Los Angeles Waterkeeper team pushed to get the measure passed, credited the county for getting the big project off the ground, but said he’d like to see more investment in neighborhood-level projects Smaller-scale residence in addition to large projects -queet items.

“The reality is we’ve made really big strides, but we’re still largely dependent on imported water, which is dwindling,” says Reznik. “That’s not much water security.”

There are a number of other projects underway to help boost supplies to the area, he said, including a major Los Angeles Department of Water and Power initiative called Operation Next, which aims to re-energize the area. processing at most 100% pure wastewater from Hyperion Water Extraction Plant by 2035.

DWP spokeswoman Ellen Cheng said it is one of many projects under development, including a groundwater recharge project in the San Fernando Valley that, when completed, will recycle 100% of available wastewater. from the Donald C. Tillman Waterworks and eventually produce drinking water for more than 200,000 Angelenos.

“The bottom line is that LADWP continues to invest significantly in several programs to further diversify the city’s water supply portfolio – including local groundwater, recycled water, stormwater collection, conservation. water and use it efficiently,” says Cheng.

The agency is also developing projects that collect stormwater and runoff from parks in the East San Fernando Valley, as well as a direct drinkable reuse project near Griffith Park for wastewater treatment. by drinking water standards, Cheng said.

Department of Water Resources officials across the state are continuing to fund advanced water and resilience infrastructure projects at local agencies to help the state “drought resistant,” official said. At the same time, the California Coastal Commission recently rejected a plan to build a desalination plant in Orange County.

When asked to rate the region’s readiness for the current drought, Reznik gave it a minus C, but when asked to rate the region’s efforts to get more water, he said that “many more” than in the B+ range.”

“We’re on the right track, it’s just that we can use more – and sooner,” he said.


While the past drought sheds light on the problems facing millions of residents, some of its most devastating effects have been felt in the state’s forests and rivers. Vulnerable fish species, especially salmon, have been pushed to the brink of extinction due to warmer waters and shrinking stream flows, experts say.

John McManus, Golden State president Salmon Assn, said the problem was “absolutely exacerbated by the last drought.

He explains: “Spring spring releases essentially do not occur during dry periods, and the ability of fish to maintain cold water on eggs incubating in the fall is affected and often becomes too warm. ” he explained.

While California is continuing to lose large amounts of wild-caught salmon as the state becomes hotter and drier, officials have taken a number of actions to help mitigate the problem, McManus said. said, include strategically managing cold water discharge from reservoirs and transporting salmon to areas where they have a better chance of survival, although the concept is not without controversy.

“They’re reaching into the pocket of tricks and saying, ‘Where else can we park these adult fish so they can spawn naturally and there’ll be water cold enough to keep the eggs alive,” McManus said. ?'” Salmon in particular remains endangered, with many stakeholders in the state “quite worried about their extinction,” he added.

But while salmon could benefit from some of these solutions, California’s forests face a tougher road. During the last drought, an estimated 102 million trees that depended on soil moisture died, according to a 2018 report that Lund co-authored. Dead trees have a dangerous impact on wildfires, erosion, and public safety.

“For the forests, we’re having a hard time,” he said, adding that it would take “many millions of acres” of water to turn the tide. “There are some environmental impacts that we have to adapt to – that we won’t be able to push back the clock – and that holds true for forests,” he said.

That might not be so bad, though, as many of the state’s forests have become overgrown in the last century due to wildfire suppression, he said.

But as with geysers and green lawns, that means residents of the Golden State should get used to the idea of ​​a California that looks different.

“We had to find a way to prepare for the aridity, essentially, of much of California’s natural landscape,” Lund said.

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-06-15/didnt-california-learn-anything-from-the-last-severe-drought-a-mixed-record Did California learn anything from the last drought? ‘Gambling’ with water continues

Edmund DeMarche

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