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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 Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.


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