• <div class="header-image" style="background-image: url(/live/image/gid/4/3256_shutterstock_1302963724.rev.1575383343.jpg);" data-share-image="/live/image/gid/4/3256_shutterstock_1302963724.jpg"/><div class="header-background-color"/>

The Present and Future of Water in California

November 28, 2016

Despite a decrease in national attention, California is still dealing with the consequences of an unprecedented drought. All three stakeholders in the state’s current water allocation arrangement: the environment, agriculture, and urban users are suffering from its effects and are playing a role in generating solutions. These solutions will require compromise and understanding.

Present Challenges

California is still in the midst of a record-breaking drought with the last five years being the driest in the state’s history. [1] According to the United States Drought Monitor 60.27 percent of the state is still experiencing severe to exceptional drought.[2]

Drought Conditions in California SourceDrought Conditions in California Source Credit: United States Drought Monitor

These drought conditions have serious consequences including increasingly volatile wildfires. In fact, the total acreage (an acre is roughly 75 percent of a football field) burned in 2016 is estimated to have doubled 2015’s totals.[4] Even without the flames, the exceptional dry conditions continue to have a deadly influence on the environment.  In average-rainfall years normal tree mortality in the state is less than five percent, but today some forests are experiencing 100 percent mortality.[5] 

In addition to the environment, the agriculture industry is distressed. In years past, California farmers could rely on critical water infrastructure like the State Water Project Aqueduct to meet 75 percent of their irrigation water needs. However, during recent drought years farmers are receiving close to 0 percent of that allocation in spite of paying for their allotted acre-feet (an acre foot is one foot of water covering one acre), and are using groundwater pumping to sustain the industry.[7] That level of sustained pumping without recharge is untenable and many parts of the state are sinking as aquifers compress.  California leads the nation in agricultural products. The Golden State produces 15 percent of the nation’s total crop value and is the top producer of 75 commodities. Agriculture accounts, when considering food and beverage processing, for 760,000 jobs and 9.2 percent of the state’s manufacturing output.[8] Entire counties are reliant on the agricultural industry, and their survival is dependent on a steady flow of water. Some communities, especially in the state’s agriculturally-rich Central Valley, have suffered from unemployment rates as high as 50 percent as farmers have been forced by degenerating conditions to take fields out of production.[9]

Present solutions

To help ease the suffering the government has preached conservation and efficiency. Governor Jerry Brown (D) has ordered that State Water Resources Control Board to achieve a 25 percent reduction in urban water usage.[10] His executive order, along with recently signed legislation designed to curb the estimated 350,000 acre-feet of water lost from leaking urban water distribution systems, is making a positive difference in urban water sustainability.[11]

Apart from Sacramento legislators, agriculture is also doing its part in conservation through innovation. The industry is shifting away from direct surface irrigation to more efficient pressurized irrigation systems that deliver water directly to the root systems of crops.[12] Extensive adoption of these targeted technologies can help sustain the state’s scarce water supplies.

Almond Trees with Targeted Drip Irrigation [13]Almond Trees with Targeted Drip Irrigation [13] Credit: Natural Resources Conservation Service California USDA

These solutions will have tangible long-term impacts but legislators and voters realize conservation cannot be the only answer. California’s water infrastructure is outdated. The last large state- or federally-funded reservoir was built 35 years ago.[14] Since then “California has grown by 15 million people, the equivalent of adding everyone now living in Washington, Oregon, and Nevada.”[15] In response, Californian’s passed Proposition 1, the $7.5 billion dollar Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement bond issue in 2014 with over 67 percent of the vote.[16] Out of these substantial funds, $2.7 billion dollars are earmarked for water storage projects. Presently, none of those funds have been awarded to any water infrastructure developments.

Future challenges

According to the Public Policy Institute of California, “Statewide, average water use is roughly 50% environmental, 40% agricultural, and 10% urban.”[17] In times of abundant water supply, there is little struggle among these three consumer classes of water. However, current shortages have generated intense, and often provocative dialogue amongst the groups relating to California’s current water priorities, and what each perceives they should be.

There are myriad examples of this sectoral struggle. In 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a 396-page opinion piece identifying pumps that moved water from the north of the state to agriculturists and urban users in the south as the main perpetrator in the reduced population of delta smelt, a fish species.[18] The smelt is considered an important indicator of ecosystem health, and in response the Fish and Wildlife Service imposed strict restrictions on water pumping throughout the duration of the drought.[19] Years later, it has become clear that lack of precipitation, not water pumping, is the main culprit in the decline of the species, but future battles involving other endangered species are still likely.[20]

In another case, Sacramento has set its sights on regulating groundwater usage. Agriculture relies on this source in absence of water from the State Water Project. In 2014, Governor Brown signed the Groundwater Management Act, empowering local authorities to enact groundwater management plans.[21] Although the plans are necessary to ensure sustainable groundwater, in the absence of additional water storage, or innovative methods to conserve or generate more freshwater, they will leave farmers with few survival options if a similar event strikes again. As California’s population increases to an estimated 50 million people by the year 2050 the pressure on the state’s available water will only intensify.[22]

Potential solution

There are still reasons to be optimistic. In addition to conservation, legislation, and storage, innovation has the potential to play a huge role. It already has in Israel. Eight years ago Israel was suffering from similar extreme drought conditions. In response, Israeli leaders implemented an aggressive water management strategy utilizing advanced water recycling, efficient irrigation, and, above all, desalination to now produce excess water that they sell to neighboring nations.[23] California is already moving in the direction of water recycling and economical irrigation, and with the upcoming opening of the Carlsbad desalination project in San Diego, the desalination is becoming more of a possibility. For now, red tape, concerns of environmental consequences, and prohibitive prices preserve the technology’s place as a last resort.[24] Under California water rights legislation, water must be put to its most “beneficial use” for the public.[25] 

Clearly, environmentalists, agriculturists, and urban users will have to work together to build systems and plans that meet requirements for the public because all three have benefits. Conservation, increased storage capacity, groundwater recharge, and desalination need to be part of the solution. Beyond policy choices, solving California’s water dilemmas will require compromise and understanding in Sacramento to ensure that the state can sustain its skyrocketing population growth, maintain its environmental integrity, and protect its vibrant agricultural sector. 


  [1] Worstall, Tim. “But Donald Trump Is Right About California Water – The Problem Is The Price, Not The Drought.” www.forbes.com. May 29, 2016. Accessed November 15, 2016. http://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2016/05/29/but-donald-trump-is-right-about-california-water-the-problem-is-the-price-not-the-drought/#186db473236a.

  [2] “U.S. Drought Monitor.” United States Drought Monitor Home State Drought Monitor. November 10, 2016. Accessed November 15, 2016. http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/Home/StateDroughtMonitor.aspx?CA.

  [3] Ibid.

  [4] Rocha, Veronica. “Drought Sparks Larger Wildfires throughout California.” Www.latimes.com. June 7, 2016. Accessed November 15, 2016. http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-california-fires-drought-20160607-snap-story.html.

  [5] Ibid.

  [6] Katrina Kameron. “Erskine Fire: Bay Area fire agencies help battle massive wildfire.”The Mercury News. June 24, 2016. Accessed November 16, 2016. http://www.mercurynews.com/2016/06/24/erskine-fire-bay-area-fire-agencies-help-battle-massive-wildfire/

  [7] Beecher, Annabelle. “California’s Critical Water Cyle out of Balance for State’s Farmers.” Peninsulapress.com. July 15, 2016. Accessed November 15, 2016. http://archive.peninsulapress.com/2014/07/15/california-water-cycle-drought-farmers/.

  [8] Sexton, Richard J., Josue Medellin-Azuara, and Tina L. Saitone. “The Economic Impact of Food and Beverage Processing in California.” www.imperialvalleynews.com. June 15, 2015. Accessed November 15, 2016. http://www.imperialvalleynews.com/index.php/news/california-news/3798-the-economic-impact-of-food-and-beverage-processing-in-california.html

  [9] Marois, Michael B. “California Drought Threatens 50% Farm Town Unemployment.” Www.bloomberg.com. February 13, 2014. Accessed November 15, 2016. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-02-14/california-drought-threatens-50-farm-town-unemployment

  [10] “Water Conditions: Declaration.” Water Conditions: Declaration. Accessed November 15, 2016.http://www.water.ca.gov/waterconditions/declaration.cfm

  [11] No. 555, 1-8 (2015) (enacted).California Senate.

  [12] Weiser, Matt. “Flood Irrigation Still Common, but Drip Method Is Gaining Ground.” www.sacbee.com, February 16, 2014. Accessed November 15, 2016. http://www.sacbee.com/news/politics-government/article2591279.html.

  [13] “Success Stories – Landowner Profile Hueston Pence,” Natural Resources Conservation Service California USDA. Accessed November 16, 2016. https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/ca/newsroom/stories/?cid=nrcs144p2_064174

  [14] Rogers, Paul. “California Drought: Why Doesn’t California Build Big Dams Any More?” www,mercurynews.com, August 12, 2016. Accessed November 15, 2016. http://www.mercurynews.com/2014/08/31/california-drought-why-doesnt-california-build-big-dams-any-more/

  [15] Ibid.

  [16] “California Proposition 1, Water Bond (2014).” California - Ballotpedia. Accessed November 15, 2016. https://ballotpedia.org/California_Proposition_1,_Water_Bond_(2014)

  [17] “Water Use in California.” (PPIC Publication). Accessed November 15, 2016. http://www.ppic.org/main/publication_show.asp?i=1108

  [18] Finley, Allysia. “Forget the Missing Rainfall, California. Where’s the Delta Smelt?” WSJ. April 26, 2015. Accessed November 16, 2016. http://www.wsj.com/articles/forget-the-missing-rainfall-california-wheres-the-delta-smelt-1430085510.

  [19] Ibid.

  [20] Ibid.

  [21] “Key Legislation.” Key Legislation. Accessed November 16, 2016. http://water.ca.gov/groundwater/groundwater_management/legislation.cfm

  [22] “CALIFORNIA’S POPULATION WILL CONTINUE TO GROW.” Accessed November 16, 2016. http://www.ppic.org/content/pubs/report/R_215HJ3R.pdf.

  [23] Stephen Stock, Michael Bott, Jeremy Carroll, Felipe Escamilla. “Solutions to California’s Water Crisis From Half a World Away.” NBC Bay Area. Accessed November 16, 2016. http://www.nbcbayarea.com/investigations/Surviving-the-Drought-Solutions-to-California-Water-Crisis-From-Israel-339638362.html.

  [24] Kasler, Dale. “Southern California Desalination Plant Will Help Ease Water Crunch, but Price Is Steep.” Sacbee. Accessed November 16, 2016. http://www.sacbee.com/news/state/california/water-and-drought/article49468770.html.

  [25] “The Water Rights Process.” www.waterboards.ca.gov. Accessed November 16, 2016. http://www.waterboards.ca.gov/waterrights/board_info/water_rights_process.shtml

Student Blog Disclaimer
  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.


  • <h3>National Bureau of Economic Research (Public Use Data Archive)</h3><p><img width="180" height="43" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/43/478_nber.rev.1407530465.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image478 lw_align_right" data-max-w="329" data-max-h="79"/>Founded in 1920, the <strong>National Bureau of Economic Research</strong> is a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization dedicated to promoting a greater understanding of how the economy works. The NBER is committed to undertaking and disseminating unbiased economic research among public policymakers, business professionals, and the academic community.</p><p> Quick Link to <strong>Public Use Data Archive</strong>: <a href="http://www.nber.org/data/" target="_blank">http://www.nber.org/data/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>The World Bank Data (U.S.)</h3><p><img width="130" height="118" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/130/height/118/484_world-bank-logo.rev.1407788945.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image484 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/130/height/118/484_world-bank-logo.rev.1407788945.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/130/height/118/484_world-bank-logo.rev.1407788945.jpg 3x" data-max-w="1406" data-max-h="1275"/>The <strong>World Bank</strong> provides World Development Indicators, Surveys, and data on Finances and Climate Change.</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://data.worldbank.org/country/united-states" target="_blank">http://data.worldbank.org/country/united-states</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>National Center for Education Statistics</h3><p><strong><img width="400" height="80" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/400/height/80/479_nces.rev.1407787656.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image479 lw_align_right" data-max-w="400" data-max-h="80"/>The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) is the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education in the U.S. and other nations.</strong> NCES is located within the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences. NCES has an extensive Statistical Standards Program that consults and advises on methodological and statistical aspects involved in the design, collection, and analysis of data collections in the Center. To learn more about the NCES, <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/about/" target="_blank">click here</a>.</p><p> Quick link to NCES Data Tools: <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/datatools/index.asp?DataToolSectionID=4" target="_blank">http://nces.ed.gov/datatools/index.asp?DataToolSectionID=4</a></p><p> Quick link to Quick Tables and Figures: <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/quicktables/" target="_blank">http://nces.ed.gov/quicktables/</a></p><p> Quick link to NCES Fast Facts (Note: The primary purpose of the Fast Facts website is to provide users with concise information on a range of educational issues, from early childhood to adult learning.): <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/" target="_blank">http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/#</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED®)</h3><p><strong><img width="180" height="79" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/79/481_fred-logo.rev.1407788243.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image481 lw_align_right" data-max-w="222" data-max-h="97"/>An online database consisting of more than 72,000 economic data time series from 54 national, international, public, and private sources.</strong> FRED®, created and maintained by Research Department at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, goes far beyond simply providing data: It combines data with a powerful mix of tools that help the user understand, interact with, display, and disseminate the data.</p><p> Quick link to data page: <a href="http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/tags/series" target="_blank">http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/tags/series</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>HUD State of the Cities Data Systems</h3><p><strong><img width="200" height="200" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/200/height/200/482_hud_logo.rev.1407788472.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image482 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/200/height/200/482_hud_logo.rev.1407788472.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/200/height/200/482_hud_logo.rev.1407788472.jpg 3x" data-max-w="612" data-max-h="613"/>The SOCDS provides data for individual Metropolitan Areas, Central Cities, and Suburbs.</strong> It is a portal for non-national data made available through a number of outside institutions (e.g. Census, BLS, FBI and others).</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.huduser.org/portal/datasets/socds.html" target="_blank">http://www.huduser.org/portal/datasets/socds.html</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Federal Aviation Administration: Accident & Incident Data</h3><p><img width="100" height="100" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/100/height/100/80_faa-logo.rev.1402681347.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image80 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/100/height/100/80_faa-logo.rev.1402681347.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/100/height/100/80_faa-logo.rev.1402681347.jpg 3x" data-max-w="550" data-max-h="550"/>The NTSB issues an accident report following each investigation. These reports are available online for reports issued since 1996, with older reports coming online soon. The reports listing is sortable by the event date, report date, city, and state.</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.faa.gov/data_research/accident_incident/" target="_blank">http://www.faa.gov/data_research/accident_incident/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>MapStats</h3><p> A feature of FedStats, MapStats allows users to search for <strong>state, county, city, congressional district, or Federal judicial district data</strong> (demographic, economic, and geographic).</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.fedstats.gov/mapstats/" target="_blank">http://www.fedstats.gov/mapstats/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Congressional Budget Office</h3><p><img width="180" height="180" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/180/380_cbo-logo.rev.1406822035.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image380 lw_align_right" data-max-w="180" data-max-h="180"/>Since its founding in 1974, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has produced independent analyses of budgetary and economic issues to support the Congressional budget process.</p><p> The agency is strictly nonpartisan and conducts objective, impartial analysis, which is evident in each of the dozens of reports and hundreds of cost estimates that its economists and policy analysts produce each year. CBO does not make policy recommendations, and each report and cost estimate discloses the agency’s assumptions and methodologies. <strong>CBO provides budgetary and economic information in a variety of ways and at various points in the legislative process.</strong> Products include baseline budget projections and economic forecasts, analysis of the President’s budget, cost estimates, analysis of federal mandates, working papers, and more.</p><p> Quick link to Products page: <a href="http://www.cbo.gov/about/our-products" target="_blank">http://www.cbo.gov/about/our-products</a></p><p> Quick link to Topics: <a href="http://www.cbo.gov/topics" target="_blank">http://www.cbo.gov/topics</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>USDA Nutrition Assistance Data</h3><p><img width="180" height="124" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/124/485_usda_logo.rev.1407789238.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image485 lw_align_right" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/180/height/124/485_usda_logo.rev.1407789238.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/180/height/124/485_usda_logo.rev.1407789238.jpg 3x" data-max-w="1233" data-max-h="850"/>Data and research regarding the following <strong>USDA Nutrition Assistance</strong> programs are available through this site:</p><ul><li>Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) </li><li>Food Distribution Programs </li><li>School Meals </li><li>Women, Infants and Children </li></ul><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.fns.usda.gov/data-and-statistics" target="_blank">http://www.fns.usda.gov/data-and-statistics</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>The Penn World Table</h3><p> The Penn World Table provides purchasing power parity and national income accounts converted to international prices for 189 countries/territories for some or all of the years 1950-2010.</p><p><a href="https://pwt.sas.upenn.edu/php_site/pwt71/pwt71_form.php" target="_blank">Quick link.</a> </p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>NOAA National Climatic Data Center</h3><p><img width="200" height="198" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/200/height/198/483_noaa_logo.rev.1407788692.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image483 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/200/height/198/483_noaa_logo.rev.1407788692.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/200/height/198/483_noaa_logo.rev.1407788692.jpg 3x" data-max-w="954" data-max-h="945"/>NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) is responsible for preserving, monitoring, assessing, and providing public access to the Nation’s treasure of <strong>climate and historical weather data and information</strong>.</p><p> Quick link to home page: <a href="http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/" target="_blank">http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/</a></p><p> Quick link to NCDC’s climate and weather datasets, products, and various web pages and resources: <a href="http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/data-access/quick-links" target="_blank">http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/data-access/quick-links</a></p><p> Quick link to Text & Map Search: <a href="http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cdo-web/" target="_blank">http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cdo-web/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Internal Revenue Service: Tax Statistics</h3><p><img width="155" height="200" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/155/height/200/486_irs_logo.rev.1407789424.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image486 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/155/height/200/486_irs_logo.rev.1407789424.jpg 2x" data-max-w="463" data-max-h="596"/>Find statistics on business tax, individual tax, charitable and exempt organizations, IRS operations and budget, and income (SOI), as well as statistics by form, products, publications, papers, and other IRS data.</p><p> Quick link to <strong>Tax Statistics, where you will find a wide range of tables, articles, and data</strong> that describe and measure elements of the U.S. tax system: <a href="http://www.irs.gov/uac/Tax-Stats-2" target="_blank">http://www.irs.gov/uac/Tax-Stats-2</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>