Why Has the Response to the California Drought Been so Weak?

In the past few weeks, I have had been asked the same question by reporters, friends, strangers, and even a colleague who posts regularly on this very ScienceBlogs site (the prolific and thoughtful Greg Laden): why, 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 (1) that the drought is bad; and (2) the response has been tepid). In many ways, the response is as complicated as California’s water system itself, with widely and wildly diverse sources of water, uses 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.

The July 15, 2014 Drought Monitor map for California. The July 15, 2014 Drought Monitor map for California.

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 farmworkers will be out of work this summer and fall, some farmers will be forced to fallow land because of the lack of water, and others will have higher costs associated with the need to replace surface water shortages with temporary groundwater pumping. But 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. The agricultural sector, which consumes 80% or more of the water that humans use here, only produces $40 billion out of a total gross state product of over $2 trillion – 2 percent.

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

In January, Governor Brown declared a drought emergency. Terrific. That was the right thing to do. 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. Other than an occasional billboard urging people to stop wasting water, or an occasional newspaper article about the drought, I have gotten little or no information from my water utility urging (or requiring) me to cut my water use, no detailed information telling me what I can do to save water, and no imposition of mandatory restrictions, except in a few small areas.

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. (This does happen, but it is a failure of utilities to implement effective water rate structures that can encourage conservation while still satisfying revenue needs: see here for information on strategies to avoid this).

Some farmers have “senior water rights” and will get all or most of the water they need this year. These farmers have no incentive to conserve water or use it more efficiently – and the media and the public do not hear from them. Instead, the public only hears from junior water-rights holders who have posted highly visible signs along Highway 5 in the Central Valley decrying the “Congress created dust bowl” or other catchy phrases that try to place political blame for natural events. These actually come from a tiny part of California’s agricultural community who know that they cannot get all of the water they want (as junior water rights holders), even in normal water years, because the state has given away far more water than nature reliably provides.

These signs are common along Highway 5 in California's Central Valley, especially where junior water-rights holders have land that won't get water during droughts. Ironically, this one is placed right in front of a newly planted almond orchard. These signs are common along Highway 5 in California's Central Valley, especially where junior water-rights holders have land that won't get water during droughts. Ironically, this one is placed right in front of a newly planted almond orchard. (Credit for original picture: RL Miller.)

So, for now, we muddle through with mostly voluntary exhortations to cut water use, some new mandatory penalties for egregious water wasters (though even these mandatory penalties will be largely unenforced and largely ineffective at reducing water waste), and a lot of wishful thinking that El Niño will bail us out next year.

That could happen. But it might not. If next year is also dry, the shit is going to start to hit the fan. Our reserves and marginal sources of water are gone or going. Our reliance on groundwater overdraft cannot continue without destroying aquifers and streams that depend on groundwater flow. The richest farmers and communities will begin to pay (as they are starting to now) premium prices to buy water from other farmers or to take advantage of loopholes that exempt groundwater from regulation, monitoring, and management, at the expense of poorer farmers and communities who cannot drill million-dollar wells. And more and more people will be at risk of waking up, turning on the tap, and getting nothing but air.

In short, the tepid response will turn into panic and pressure to take actions, even if those actions are inappropriate (like letting fisheries and ecosystems die) or could have been avoided had we done the smart things we should have done earlier.

Peter Gleick

[Update: Credit for Central Valley photo to RL Miller added. Thanks RL, for the permission!]

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I don't know how it shakes out temperature-wise, but as one who waters enough to keep the plants in decent shape (i.e. not so stressed they will die, -not enough to look lush and happy), the amount of water a need is exponentially dependent upon temperature. My perception was May and June were hotter and dryer than usual. So not seeing an actual reduction in use, may not be because of lack of effort, but that weather might have canceled out any savings.
I've seen it mentioned elsewhere that its partly that cities did a good job of securing water supplies after the last big drought, and they aren't forcing conservation on their customers.
Lastly, I would have expected nurseries to have a large stock of cactus and succulents this year, but the supply seems to be low -its like they don't want to remind shoppers, the few cactus's and succulents they do have are not prominently displayed.

By Omega Centauri (not verified) on 20 Jul 2014 #permalink

One thing you didn't touch on in this post was the fire danger. Would a really major fire be sufficient impetus to force the state government to do something? Or would they stand around wringing their hands until the Hollywood sign burns? (I know that the fires in San Diego this year were extradordinary because they were so early, but I don't think most people outside of Southern California understand that.)

By JustaTech (not verified) on 21 Jul 2014 #permalink

Re #4 It turns out that the newest homes in San Diego are built with fire resistant exteriors. Both roofs, screens in roof vents to prevent embers from entering, as well as non combustible walls. Add to this a 300 foot distance between the home and vegetation and you can make fire a non issue. It might well mean gravel and sand for yards however.

Many people in the Bay Area have cut water use already. We don't have air conditioners. we don't do a lot of outside watering. We don't have swimming pools. What is left to cut? Also, the way mandatory cuts are made is unfair because it rewards heavy users who can easily cut more. Folks are smart enough to realize that it doesn't make sense to make voluntary cuts when mandatory cuts are coming because you will have exhausted the slack in your system and then be required to cut further. The experience of having rates increased because water use is going down is infuriating and should be prohibited.

By Bart Grossman (not verified) on 21 Jul 2014 #permalink

You might want to include that some water suppliers refrain from appropriate water supply reductions because their regulations require them to stop issuing new meters when supply reductions occur - stopping development. And if the regs don't require this their customers get very upset that they are required to reduce use while hundreds of new home and hotel rooms are built (and landscaped) next door.

By Larry Farwell (not verified) on 22 Jul 2014 #permalink

What bart said was certainly true in the past, -required reductions were calculated as a fixed percentage of use. So those who cutdown during normal times usually don't have much fat to cut, but will be forced to cut muscle and bone. So the mentality is use more than you need, its insurance against a drought.
I don't know if policies have caught up, but certainly the mentality hasn't.

By Omega Centauri (not verified) on 23 Jul 2014 #permalink

The drought is worse than I thought.

By Hospice Valley (not verified) on 25 Jul 2014 #permalink

As you have correctly pointed out, the vast majority of the water is used by agriculture. Residents have already conserved and have been doing so for some time. Low flow showers, toilets, drip irrigation for plants etc.

The areas with the people already use the lowest amount of water per capita. You can't squeeze water from a dry sponge, so the speak. I mean the only thing left is to eliminate lawns altogether. And considering you are asking the people using the 20% to use just less....it's just harder.