Post-Drought Water Management in California

The last time that the reservoirs throughout the northern and central parts of the state were this low, Kenny Rodgers hit #1 with “Lucille” about a lovely lady who left California for Ohio in search of a man who had property with water enough to grow crops.  That shows you how much I know about country music in 1977!   Not much.  But I do certainly remember the drought in California that molded my lifelong interest and career in water management.

creating the thirst

Why was it that so many communities in the state were ill prepared to deal with the severity of the 1976/77 drought?  Had we as communities committed water supplies beyond our true supply capabilities? To truly understand we have to look back to the period in our state’s history when the construction of reservoirs, dams, diversions and new water supply infrastructure was at a peak, the mid 1920’s through the 1950’s.  A quick glance at weather history reveals this same time period as “wet” with regard to rain and snowfall.  Urbanized areas were growing quickly in population and water needs.  Water purveyors were offering wonderfully inexpensive rates to encourage community development,  robust agricultural production and to perfect water rights.

With ample water supply our communities grew rapidly in homes and population, which resulted in the blossoming of public facilities, sprawling public parks and construction of school after school, each equipped with the finest football and baseball fields.  The 50’s through 70’s saw continued rapid growth and the maturing of water demand in communities where lawns met lawns and the new norm was a pool in every backyard.  Water was plentiful, cheap and delivered for your every need without restriction.

Then it hit.

1976-77 – two years of what seemed like no rain.  Water providers began demanding immediate water use restrictions, but in most areas the pre-Facebook/Web plea fell on deaf ears, as no one had heard of such a thing!  In many areas of water plenty, there were no water meters and people had no idea how much water they used, or conserved.  Seeking to keep the pool and assuming that in-home water conservation could get us through the drought, you began to hear “if its yellow, let it mellow and if its brown, flush it down and save water, shower together” as a means of cutting back on water use.  Major urban areas ran dangerously low on water supply, and we realized for the first time in decades that perhaps our use of precious water resources had outstripped the supplies available in a severe drought.

So began the statewide trend of water conservation as a way of life, albeit much muffled as the drought had faded.  Not without fight, the early 1990’s saw requirements for meters installed on all new water connections and low-flow plumbing fixtures.  Throughout the 1990’s and into the early 2000’s, the state enacted a number of laws that required public water agencies to carefully calculate water supplies available in a drought when adopting water management plans and making water supply commitments to new development.  The Federal Endangered Species Act and related laws, coupled with a steep rise in water management related lawsuits during this timeframe also added to the urgency and mandatory requirements for comprehensive water supply planning based on the worst case scenario drought (76/77 in most cases) and that includes strict water conservation requirements.

76/77 not the worst

The 2013 rainfall year was the driest year since 1840; the year that official rainfall recording began in California.   In fact, experts are of the opinion that the last time the state was as dry was over 500 years ago. The 20th Century was a mild and fairly wet period for our fine state.  In history there have also been dry periods lasting up to 100 years.[1]  What is not for sure is whether we are in for a longer dry spell.  What is for sure, is that our experience this past year will forever change the way water is managed in this state.

Due to the severity of 2013, many have predicted the upcoming years as “Water Armageddon” in the California legislature, regulatory agencies and courts. Having been personally involved with legislative and regulatory affairs over the past two decades, I do believe we are in for the perfect storm.  I strongly encourage districts of all types to engage in interactive dialogue with our local district water providers, cities, counties, community and environmental groups, about how water supply planning and management is conducted in our communities.

It is highly probable that the future of water conservation requirements and supply planning has found its new benchmark in the 2013/14 water year.  Our approach to drought response needs to change and this begins with progressive strategies implemented in every community throughout the state; north to south.    Responding to drought time after time is expensive in both infrastructure and human resources, as well as lost economic productivity.  The long term community focus must be  drought resiliency; where response is as simple as downloading an app on your iPhone and much more effective than  group showers!

[1]  UC Berkeley paleoclimatologist B. Lynn Ingram