CIRS Blog about Rural California

Drought Spurs Policy Changes

  • Font size: Larger Smaller
  • Subscribe to this entry
  • Print

California’s historic drought continues to intensify. The very real impacts across the entire state include idled farmland and associated farmworker job losses, farm income losses, and food price increases. The state’s dwindling reservoir supply has resulted in mandatory water cutbacks and unprecedented fines for some, but no region of California has conserved as much water as Governor Brown has requested (20 percent). Water use actually increased 1 percent in urban areas last May, compared to the May average from 2011-2013. Residents of several cities are still receiving violation notices for failing to keep front lawns green, even though they are saving water. In rural communities, the impacts of drought are far more obvious, particularly in communities reliant on groundwater as a primary source of drinking water.



San Joaquin Drought

Caption: The San Joaquin River running dry below Fraint Dam in April 2014, image from American Rivers, ©Julie Fair, flight by LightHawk


Last week, it finally became illegal statewide to waste water by watering pavement or irrigating urban lawns more often than two days per week. These emergency regulations by the California State Water Resources Board are the most stringent drought-related measures yet enacted.


Unfortunately there is still a large information gap in water use data, especially regarding groundwater, and highly inconsistent monitoring and enforcement of water conservation measures statewide. The state’s most senior water rights holders—a small but powerful group of individuals and corporations that use more water than California’s state and federal water projects combined—have yet to face any restrictions or meaningful measures to reduce water use. Instead, private water sales by senior water rights holders are increasingly common in drought-stricken areas, with a single acre-foot of water fetching more than $2,000 in some cases. The Madera Irrigation District recently profited almost $7 million from selling 3,200 acre-feet of water. Private firms and landowners with water bank “credits” (from storing water during wet years) are raking in big profits from extracted groundwater sales.


Groundwater Crisis & Reform on the way


There is no longer any doubt that California’s groundwater is in crisis. Far too much water has been pumped for far too long without recharge, and the remaining groundwater is commonly contaminated with chemicals and nutrients, mostly originating on farmland. Despite the known problems stemming from generations of groundwater overdraft, including decades of land subsidence and sea water intrusion, California has never managed groundwater on a statewide level.


US Drought


Caption: This map combines data from satellites and ground-based measurements to model the relative amount of water stored in underground aquifers in the continental United States. The wetness, or water content, is a depiction of the amount of groundwater on July 7, 2014, compared to the average from 1948 to 2009. Shades of red depict deficits compared to this time of year. Courtesy of U.S. Drought Monitor and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center


Legislators in Sacramento are pushing forward two groundwater bills that could lead to important changes in groundwater conservation and management: SB 1168 and AB 1739. The proposed laws would allow the California State Water Resources Board to intervene, manage, and control groundwater in areas with severe problems, while also preserving local authorities’ ability to manage groundwater sustainably.


Revised legislation is expected to be announced today, Aug. 4, as supporters of the bills work to develop passable versions by the end of the month. Forward-looking solutions are badly needed in California, especially in light of the state’s history of catastrophic droughts and the likelihood that ongoing climate change will continue to exacerbate dry conditions

in Water Hits: 1860 0 Comments

Annie Beaman is an independent consultant working on water issues and sustainable agriculture in California. In addition to researching, writing, strategizing, and campaigning about issues that impact vulnerable ecosystems and communities, she is an avid gardener and baker. Annie is a stewardship-obsessed member of a multi-generational farming family, and a longtime advocate for environmental protection and social justice. Follow her on Twitter @anniebeaman.


Sign Up for our E-newsletter