2 Nov 2022


Drought Policy in California

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The currently observed water crisis in California has greatly affected many country’s economic sectors. California's water crisis is considered both a political and a social problem that shows the need for conservation of the precious natural resources. Struggle for water has been observed as environmentalists, farmers, and domestic water users fight for a fair share of the available water (Greenhut, 2014). This water shortage has been of interest to many experts and the scientists have attributed it to the drought that has lasted for about five years now. The drought has drastically affected the snow in Sierra Nevada, which is one of the biggest sources of California water. Research has estimate that a third of the water being used in California is from snow melt in normal spring and summer seasons (Richberg, 2015). A research carried out in 2015 showed that the amount of Snowpack had reduced by 40 % in one year. This implies that the rainfall received in 2015 would be much higher than what is expected in 2016. The water shortage and the inability of the natural circle to fill up the water sources has made the government come up with a water rationing policy that is aimed at ensuring that everybody who uses water at least gets just enough water and avoid wastage. This paper analyzes the water shortage problem in California and provides policy recommendations that should be implemented to curb the impacts of the drought and improve water security in future. 

Some experts have argued that the main crisis in California is far from the lack of water but the fact that California has not come up with new fresh water sources that are not linked with weather. The historic water management approach in California is out of date and the government has no rights to make decisions regarding water crisis and come up with solutions in a timely and creative manner. Due to this restriction, California has a difficulty is solving the water shortage problem and subsequently reducing the impacts of drought. Solving the current drought requires proper conceptualization of the problem so that other than mitigating the effects, focus is made on addressing the cause (Greenhut, 2014). This will provide a long-term solution that the country will no longer depend on rainfall and normal domestic and agricultural activities will continue without interruption whether it rains or not. 

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Although many people would argue that the current drought is solely as a result of the increasing population due to immigration, experts like Peter Gleick do not concur with them. In his message to The Huffington, Gleick says that attributing immigration to the current water crisis in California is a true misunderstanding of the water challenges that the nation is facing (Reichberg, 2015). Although it is true that the California population has significantly increased as many immigrants from other states and outside the continent have come in, the water use in urban areas where such immigrants are known to have inhabited have not experienced significant increase in water use. This is because California has measured water use where individuals are entitled to certain amount of water. The way this water is used in some areas may however, be considered unreasonable. 

California water system has two broad categories of water rights. These are the surface water and groundwater rights. These water rights mandate that every rights owner must put the water in reasonable use and minimize wastage. The surface water rights adopt the riparian system in conjunction with any other appropriate system. The riparian rights system is the oldest California water rights that entitle water to individuals who own land along the water path (Sawyers, n.d). Every person whose land touches the water source has a right to draw and use the water in the source. This however, does not entitle the whole land to the water and once some piece of the land is transferred to a different owner, it loses the riparian rights even if the original owner reclaims it later. Under the riparian rights, owner has the right to swim, boat ride, and carry out fishing among other activities. The riparian rights take into consideration reasonable use such that the rights of one individual does not infringe on that of another. The ground water rights on the other hand allows well owners to draw as much water as the need but ensure that they reasonably put it to use. The rule of capture gives individuals freedom to extract ground water without being liable for damaging other people’s wells (Sawyers, n.d). This system promotes economic development and complete use of resources as well as little government participation in wells operations. These water rights in California have made it hard to come up with reasonable solutions to the current drought without raising questions from the public. 

Agricultural sector for instance highly depends on water and this drought is seen to have highly caused negative impacts on crop yields. Farming utilizes about 80% of California’s water use and the continuing drought has affected the production of vegetable and fruits, which are locally produced by the farmers. Farmers have been forced to abandon farming in some areas and most of their farms are lying fallow (Serrano, 2011). Towns in the rural areas are experiencing diminishing water and farmers go an extra mile to retrieve water from deep wells as the aquifers continue to run dry. The change in climate has been argued as the main cause of the water shortage in the nation. California’s climate is said to be drastically changing as the temperatures are continuously rising and the amount of rainfall has significantly reduced (Cline, 2016). California adds the list of countries that have faced water crises as a result of drought and lack of proper measures that helps water users to minimize the impacts of drought. 

Similar circumstances were experienced in Israel more than 10 years ago. Its success in achieving positive results after the drought was based on workable strategies using technology and availing enough information on how such cases are handled effectively. The country prioritized water availability and made it a national security hence being able to generate more water than the required amount. Currently, the amount of water supplied is more than the actual demand. This has made the country less reliable on rainfall and no effect is felt during the dry periods. Most nations including California have always relied on El Nino to replenish their water sources but the current drought needs a market-based approach that gives a solution that is not dependent on El Nino for water source regeneration (Cline, 2016). With the resources that California has, it is possible to recycle water to end the crisis just like what Israel did. With 412 water districts to serve 38M people, it has only 1 desalination plant compared to 5 in Israel that desalinize water that serves just 8M people. In addition, California recycles only 7% of used water and the rest is wasted while Israel recycles up to 86% and irrigates 70% of its crops with this water. Even with the allocation of 7.5 billion dollars to fund water programs in 2014, California lacks aggressive approach to achieve a significant success in the water sector. 

Lack of proper strategies has cost Californians as people have had to pay more for water. Increase in taxes aimed at reducing water wastage has cause an increase in the cost of water especially for heavy users. Similarly, the ecosystem has suffered extensively as a result of the prolonged drought and it will need a supply of almost eleven trillion gallons to reverse the status of the drought. With the current projected impacts of climate change and the increasing population, the situation is expected to worsen if no action is taken to ensure that water is treated as an essential commodity and protected against wasteful usage as experienced in many areas. The state of the drought has attracted the attention of many researches and drought experts all over the world. Abraham Tenne for instance, who headed the desalination of water in Israel points out that the Californians have no idea what the problem is and how huge its impacts are hence, taking no step to achieve water security. Having gone through a similar drought situation and being the head of an operation that was expected to bring an end to water shortage, Tenne understands what drought can cause and the amount of national sacrifice required to achieve positive results. 

In June 2015, the water officials begun water cutback to farmers among other users who are entitled to water rights as a way of balancing water access. This was the first cutback since 1977. Cities and big towns were required to cut their water use by approximately 36%. This was to be adhered to by everyone and those found to have violated this order were fined (Greenhut, 2014). This was not taken in easily as many farmers could not survive with such a high cut back hence taking a legal step to challenge the order in court. The cities have however experienced little impact as a result of this drought since resilience strategies that were laid down after the drought that begun in 1987 have helped them cope well with the little available water. The pa-capita water use in most cities has been significantly reduced through the existence of low-flow plumbing appliances among other tools. 

Water use in Colorado for instance has not been focused on saving as residents over the last ten decades have wasted water causing so much stress on its water systems and shortage in California, which highly depends on it for most of its supply. The existing water use policies have contributed to water crisis since the water supplied was enough to sustain all citizens with their activities but lack of efficient agricultural practices have led to the water shortage. The historical water rights have not been adjusted to suit the increasing population and the changing climate and this means that individuals are entitled to more water than what can be supplied. Farmers for instance adhere to the ‘use it or lose it’ phrase which encourages them to flood their farms with a lot of water so that they do not lose the water rights in future. 

After the announcement of water cutbacks by the California governor, various creative campaigns have been incorporated although their success is still low. Water deliveries to farmers through both federal and state canals have been cut and reformation of water rights is in place. Money has also been set aside as drought aid and exploration on how to desalinize ocean water is under way. At home level, people are trying to conserve water by recycling water used inside their homes to water their gardens and avoiding washing their cars. The agricultural sectors that suffered most as a result of cutbacks are those users who had long-term agreements to purchase water from central valley and state projects. Currently, these projects get the least preference in the water rights system. The senior water rights holders still access more water because the publicly financed projects have sufficient stored water. 

Based on the scientific arguments that the drought is as a result of climate change, California has worked towards reducing the amount of greenhouse gases released to the atmosphere. A law was also passed to ensure that the state buys energy that cause little carbon dioxide emission. The water shortage in California has significant impacts in other America nations as most of the foods and fruits are produced there. Most crops grown there such as Almond require a lot of water to give good yields and this has made water cuts a complex strategy to implement (Sawyers, n.d). Food prices are expected to rise and the cost of power will significantly increase as many energy generating plants will find it difficult to function with low water flow. 

Addressing the current water problem in California calls for a multi-sectorial approach where the government, water board, farmers, and other stakeholders come together to brainstorm on the fairest ways of using water. This provides a level ground where the different sectors affected by the drought plays a role in solving the crisis. With the current sources, maintenance can be done through upgrading or sourcing for new supplies (Serrano, 2011). With the ever increasing demand for water, people pay more to get water beyond the amount they are entitled since water transfer is supported. The difficulty, however, is that the water allocation and rights has codes that determines the circumstances under which a person can lease or transfer water. 

The current water crisis is California is a threat to the entire population although those in the urban areas feel little effect because their water use is generally low. While the agricultural sector utilizes about 80% of the water, the city uses only 20% (Kendis, 2015). This shows that the agricultural sector suffers and food security is at stake. Given the various options that can be adopted to mitigate the impacts of this drought, the government can work with the other stakeholders to come up with policy reforms that will help increase water supply and provide long-lasting solutions to drought and water scarcity. 

Policy reforms can be one of the best solutions to the California water crisis. Since the beginning of the drought, conferences have been organized to help come up with ways of managing it. Although many efforts have been put to realize this, there is need to consider water management with better information. Just like California, Australia experienced a severe drought that made the nation source for practical solutions to water problems. More focus was put on tracking water by having accurate amount of flow, storage, discharge, and quality. This provided an opportunity for tight water management in a fair and flexible manner. Comparing this with California, the later has an old monitoring system with deficiency in information. This makes it difficult to supply water in a transparent and conflict-free manner. 

There is need for California to have an updated water accounting system that will enhance transparent decision making in ending the impacts of the drought and water trading. This can be achieved through the use of modern technologies such as remote sensing and modern models to predict water quality and flow. Providing accurate measurements in a quick reporting of discharges and diversions by holders of water rights is crucial in maintaining water availability. Currently, individuals with senior surface water rights make a report on diversions once in three years. This also holds for those with riparian water rights while junior rights holders submit their reports on yearly basis. Other diversions outside the cities are not reported. Considering this situation the nation’s water resources control board should work with the department of water resources and the legislative arm of government to ratify proper reforms in regard to reporting water use. This may need more financial allocation from both the federal and state. 

The second area of policy reform relates to setting up clear objectives, priorities and expectations. The water cutback done in 2014 raised many questions as many people considered in unfair. The cutbacks were based on the water rights that individuals were entitled to and there was no consideration on how such people efficiently use the water allocate to them (Mount et al., 2015). Others also criticized that no consideration was done on public health, safety, and environmental needs as expected by law. Australia prioritized public health and environmental impacts and this allowed them to carry out the reforms without controversy. The California board should modify the water cutbacks and run experiments to determine the magnitude of health and environmental needs during the dry conditions. 

Promotion of sensible use and healthy supplies is another policy reform area that will help mitigate the impacts of the current drought in California. Farms and towns needs to make improvements in managing water demands and building consistent supplies. This can be achieved through reducing irrigation of urban landscapes. Half of the water used in urban areas is used to irrigate landscapes. Reduction of irrigation has been successfully used in Australia to reduce water demand in urban areas. Residents should be encouraged to adopt more conservation-oriented irrigation systems by providing them with incentives and providing plants that do not require a lot of water and at the same time create good lawns. In most cases, the residents put a lot of pressure on local agencies and the legislature should set the standards of water use that are to be implemented by the local agencies. Reasonable use can also be achieved through charging prices that are conservation-oriented. Urban conservation can be achieved through the use of tiered rates where people who have high water use are charged higher for every gallon of water they use. This will make them to reasonably use the available water and minimize wastage. Although some argue that they require more water than people who live outside the suburbs, they should keep in mind that the water shortage affects everyone irrespective of where they live. The rates charged should ensure that when sale of water comes down, the revenue is still sufficient to cover the fixed costs (Mount et al., 2015). An ideal system should charge highly during droughts but few of California’s urban systems had proper pricing systems before the beginning of drought. The water board should set up standards that the locals should comply with to ensure water demand in the urban areas is brought to a manageable level. On the same note, diversification of urban supplies by putting more resources in projects such as rain water harvesting and recycling will help provide more water for urban use. Such projects have been promoted by implementation of Proposition 1. 

In California, groundwater is the main water reserve that is essential for the agricultural sector. Overuse in many areas has, however led to depletion of this source and drought management has become difficult (Serrano, 2011). Although the recently passed groundwater law has a potential in managing droughts that can occur in future, the timeline given to attain sustainability is quite long. Additional legislation can help accelerate this process through provision of technical help and providing the required funds. In addition, the water board needs to use its legal mandate to ensure that the limited water is used in a beneficial way. It should also inspect users who affect others or the environment through diversions and decide whether to take into account unreasonable use when carrying out local restrictions irrespective of the water rights they hold. 

Another policy area that needs to be considered is the modernization of environmental drought management. Although efforts were made by agencies to reduce the environmental effect of the drought, the efforts were unplanned and no scientific basis was used (Mount et al., 2015). Furthermore, the measures that were put in place have not been properly monitored to determine their effectiveness. No strategies have been considered for recovery of fish and wildlife species once the drought ends and this may lead to serious disaster if no species can be conserved. The resilience of California’s biodiversity needs to be improved through a proper wetland and aquatic management plan, which focuses on drought management objectives and makes priorities when water scarcity calls for choices. This management plan should ensure that important river segments are preserved to keep the targeted species and at the same time meet the environmental requirements to avert extinction. 

The biodiversity task force should be given this task and they should ensure that they work the respective agency personnel. The plan can be adopted by both federal and state agencies to conduct drought management. Implementing this plan calls for assured source of financial resources and sufficient water allocated for the environmental needs. In California, the ecosystem investment gets more than 1.5 billion dollars through proposition 1 for environmental support (Mount et al., 2015). It is, therefore, the role of the legislature to ensure that agencies utilize an environmental drought strategy to put emphasis of investments that enhances the resilience of the environment towards drought. The current bond that acts as the main source of funding is not reliable hence the need for the legislature to source for a reliable mechanism of funding to ensure that enactment of this policy gives positive long-term solutions. 

California can also adopt innovations that were used in Australia during the millennium drought. These include purchasing water rights specifically for the environment so that managers can be able to easily manage habitats (Serrano, 2011). The water rights can then be traded so that water can be supplied to areas that need it more. This is possible because the California water system allows water transfer provided that the right codes are maintained. Another innovation is to have water authorities as the financier. The funds obtained will help in developing essential drought habitat and recovering populations after the drought. 

Although these policies are of great benefit if implemented, there is need to have a single policy. This is because implementation of the various policies requires a lot of financial resources, which may not be available at the moment. Single policy will also enable the water board and other stakeholders understand the policy that works rather than having several policies being implemented at the same time hence not being able to identify the best that works at an affordable cost to produce desired results. The most cost-effective and long-term solution to this drought is implementation of the promotion of reasonable use and establishing robust supplies policy. Considering that many people are entitled to more water than they actually need, it is important for the board to ensure that water is used reasonably, and robust supplies be established so that incase of future droughts, the country will be able to sustain itself with the available water. Residents in urban areas should also use refined irrigation systems that minimizes water wastage and California friendly plants should be planted in their lawns. 


Cline, H. (2016). Rain Barrels: A Solution To California's Water Crisis?." Western Farm Press 38.5 (2016): 4. Business Source Complete . Web. 30 Mar. 2016 

Damery, P., & Toledo, C. (2015). The Water Crisis in California. Jung Journal: Culture & Psyche , 9 (1), 97-103 

Greenhut, S. (2014). Government money is no answer to California drought. Retrieved from <http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2014-02-12/government-money-is-no-answer-to-california-drought/> 

Kendis, G. (2015). California Water Crisis. Good Morning America (ABC) (2015): 1. Regional Business News

Richberg, K. (2015). Traveling in a Changing Climate . Retrieved from: <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kevin-richberg/traveling-in-a-changing-c_b_8091770.html/> 

Sawyers, G. (n.d). A Primer on California water rights. Retrieved from <http://aic.ucdavis.edu/events/outlook05/Sawyer_primer.pdf/> 

Serrano, P. C. (2011). California Water Crisis . New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc 

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