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California Water Blog Article on the Historic California Drought and its Public Policy Implications

If you’ve been paying attention, you have heard about the statewide drought affecting California.  And if you live in San Juan Capistrano, that conversation is also related to the fight over whether San Juan Capistrano officials were prudent or foolish when they invested millions of city dollars in a Groundwater Recovery Plant.  The Orange County Business Council has brought to our attention a “cheat sheet” on the California drought, authored by Professor Jay Lund (a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis) and published on the California Water Blog here.  Please read the entire article, but we wanted to draw your attention to the policy challenges posed by the drought — indeed, the policy challenges posed by the millions of people who call our desert climate home.  According to Professor Lund:

How can we lessen the effects of drought? Some say the answer is to expand reservoirs or build new ones. Others see stricter water conservation as the solution. The list of single-action fixes touted in the public arena goes on. But the reality is no single strategy can sustainably ease the burden of drought in a state that demands so much economically and environmentally of its scarce water supply. Each single drought management action has advantages and serious limitations. Some examples:

  • Eliminating irrigation in all urban areas would save enough water for only 15 percent of California’s agriculture.
  • Expanding storage capacity above or below ground is useless without water to fill it; we are a water-short state.
  • Reuse of urban wastewater would satisfy only 20 percent to 30 percent of urban water demands, at considerable expense and, often, with public angst.
  • Ocean desalination is expensive and would raise the cost of water for the average California household by about $1,000 a year.
  • Decreasing the required amount of river flows for fish and water quality during a drought can backfire. The reduction can further disrupt native species and establish new non-native species, leading to additional protections and listings of endangered aquatic species – which, in turn, reduce water available to farms and cities.

Below is a graphic, sourced from the California Department of Water Resources, that describes current year-to-date precipitation in the context of the dryest (and wettest) years on record.

Source: California Department of Water Resources

Based on the above historical metrics, Professor Lund predicts that this year “will probably end up being in the range of the third to fifth driest year in more than 90 years of recordkeeping. Because the previous two years were also quite dry, the state’s largest reservoirs are at about 50 percent of their average storage for this time of year. A few more inches could fall in the remainder of this water year.”

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