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California Drought Response – Weak?

By Denise Valenzuela

Posted in

If the California drought is so bad, has the response been so tepid?

There is no single answer to this question and of course, it presumes that 1 the drought is bad; and 2 the response has been weak. In many ways its very hard to quantify the response as California’s water system itself is very complex, with widely diverse sources of water, insane differences of use and or misuse of water, prices and water rights, demands, institutions, and more. But here are some overlapping and relevant answers.

First, is the drought actually very bad?

Even this question is complicated. If you look at the well-known Drought Monitor for California weekly maps, the answer is clearly “yes.” 80% of the state is in “extreme” to “extraordinary” drought and 100% of the state is in “severe” drought or worse. Other indicators also show the severity of the drought. This year will be one of the driest on record, as was 2013. Reservoirs are at record low levels. Deliveries of surface water to some farmers are lower than at any time in recent history. Streams are drying up and fisheries are being devastated.

Yet water still comes out of my tap, in unrestricted amounts and superb quality, at a reasonable price. And this is true of every resident in the state: drinking water supplies have not been affected, especially for the vast majority of the population that lives in cities of the San Francisco Bay area, Central Valley, and southern California.

While there will be some adverse impacts of some farmworkers and farmers, the overall agricultural sector will not have a bad year. Some initial estimates from the University of California, Davis, the agricultural community as a whole will not see very large losses – a drop of perhaps 4% or so of normal farm revenue. It might be more; it might be much less. We won’t know until the end of the growing and harvest seasons.

In effect, despite our continuing water wars, the State of California’s economy has become largely insulated from the effects of short-term drought – even droughts of a few years.

Has the response to the drought been weak, and if so, why?

In January, Governor Brown declared a drought emergency. But it was not followed by any systematic statewide communications effort, any requirement for mandatory cutbacks, or any comprehensive information on how homeowners or businesses could save water.

The Governor, at the same time, announced the availability of emergency funds of up to nearly $700 million for drought response. Yet now, half a year later and in the hottest, driest part of the year, a tiny fraction of that money has been spent, and very little on the most effective strategies for saving water: rapid and immediate conservation and efficiency programs to help farmers swap out inefficient irrigation technologies for modern efficient ones, or to get homeowners to permanently remove lawns or inefficient toilets, showerheads, and washing machines – to name just a few proven, cost-effective strategies.

Some water utilities don’t like to impose drought restrictions because they have still failed to meter 100% of their customers, so there is no way to measure or monitor demands for savings. Or they fear that conservation efforts simply cut revenues, which force them to raise rates to cover their operating expenses – an action that sours customers on further conservation efforts.

So we are in a drought, and yes the drought is bad.  Our response to the drought has not been stellar either but the complex nature of the problem makes it hard to know how truly off base we have been in our response.