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About Water Risk in California

Currently, California is in the midst of a drought of historic proportions, with severe impacts on ecosystems, communities, farms, and businesses. In January 2014, after two years of nearly “no-rain” conditions, Governor Brown declared a statewide drought emergency, calling for the delivery of emergency drinking water supplies, increased conservation and financial incentives.

On April 1, 2015, Governor Brown issued an Executive Order that for the first time in history called for mandatory restrictions to achieve a statewide 25% reduction in potable urban water usage.

On May 5th, the State Water Resources Control Board adopted an emergency regulation requiring an immediate 25 percent reduction in overall potable urban water use statewide in accordance with the April 1st Executive Order.  This action places each urban water supplier into one of eight tiers, which are assigned a conservation standard, ranging between four percent and 36 percent.

Although drought is a recurring feature of California’s climate, the current extreme drought brings into sharp relief the many challenges facing water managers in California, and also presents a unique opportunity to broaden the conversation about long-term, sustainable solutions.

California Water Facts

A plumbed system. California is home to one of the most extensive systems of aqueducts and reservoirs in the world. Six major water conveyance systems and associated infrastructure redistribute water over hundreds of miles within the state, with most of this water originating as snow melt from either the Sierra Nevadas or Rocky Mountains.

Surface water. In a non-drought year, surface water supplies meet about 60% of urban and agricultural needs. Around 75% of California’s surface water supply comes from north of Sacramento, while 80% of the water demand occurs in the southern two-thirds of the state.

Groundwater. Groundwater provides roughly 40% of the state’s total water supply in any given year and serves as a buffer during drought, with some communities in California 100% reliant on aquifers for both residential and agricultural use.

Water use by sector. The CA Department of Water Resources reports that net water use is split  roughly 50% between the environment (water that is dedicated for river flows and maintaining marshland), agriculture (40%), and urban use (10%), with less than 1 percent going to industrial users. This state-wide average, however, masks regional differences. If the state’s North Coast and Lahontan regions were excluded, agriculture’s net use is estimated at 62% of the total, urban use at 16% and environmental use at 22%.

Precipitation trends. Although droughts are a recurring feature of California’s climate, annual precipitation varies dramatically across the state from less than one inch in desert locations to upwards of 100 inches along the Northern Coast. As of June 23, 2015, 95% of the state was in “severe,” “extreme” or “exceptional” drought conditions.

Energy intensity of water supplies. California water supplies are the most energy-intensive in the country. Around 20% of the state’s total electricity and more than 30% of non-power plant natural gas is used for moving, heating, and treating water supplies.

Water metering and rates. Water remains an undervalued resource in the state, leading to inefficient use of this precious resource. Many homes remain unmetered and throughout the state most multi-family units are not separately metered. Most agricultural wells are not metered either.

Diving Deeper: Challenges and Risks

High urban and agricultural water demand. Despite population growth and urban expansion (especially in the Bay and South Coast regions), total urban water use has remained relatively constant over the past 20 years. Nevertheless, Californians still use much more water than other economically advanced populations that share a similar climate, such as Australia, Israel, Italy, and Spain – much of it for outdoor watering. Agricultural water use has also become more efficient in recent decades, while at the same time farmers have increased investment in high value “permanent” crops such as almonds, avocados and grapes.  Increased investment in these crops, while producing more financial return on a “per drop” basis, has led to the hardening agricultural water demand.

Groundwater depletion. California is currently withdrawing more groundwater annually than is being replenished — on average 1-2 million acre feet each year, or an annual deficit equal to about 10-20% of the state’s average urban water use.

Water quality. Billions of gallons of California water is unsafe to drink due to a variety of toxins and pollutants from agricultural and stormwater runoff, as well as industrial pollution. The State Water Resources Control Board has estimated that, as a result, almost 2 million Californians (mostly those in rural communities) may lack access to safe water.  The poor water quality also impairs aquatic ecosystems and other beneficial uses.

Extinction and decline of native species. Among the state’s 129 native fish species, 7 have become extinct, 31 are listed as threatened or endangered under the federal and state Endangered Species Acts (ESAs), and another 69 are in decline and will likely qualify for listing in the future.

Population growth. Already the most populous state in the U.S., California’s total population is expected to grow to around 60 million people by 2050, leading to increased pressures on urban water supply, reliable water quality and flood protection.

Climate change. In addition to drought, a critical challenge posed by climate change is less snowpack retained in the Sierras, meaning less storage for drier months, and extremes in wet months. Around 75-80% of California’s surface water comes from the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which in April 2015 was 5% of the historical average. In addition, with warmer temperatures and rapid snow melt, millions of acre-feet are being lost every year to evaporation and/or end up as stormwater that becomes polluted and is often discharged from urban areas to the ocean.

The Drought. As of June 23, 2015, 95% of the state is in “severe", “extreme” or “exceptional” drought conditions.  As a result, some farmers have been cut off from surface water supplies due to low reservoir levels and numerous rural communities have found themselves with inadequate groundwater supplies.

Signs of Progress

California policy makers have identified the need to address water management in the near-term.  In early 2014, the California Natural Resources Agency, the California Environmental Protection 
Agency, and the California Department of Food and Agriculture released the California Water Action Plan that identifies key actions over the next five years that address urgent needs and provide the foundation for sustainable management of
 California’s water resources. Included in the Plan are actions that will better prepare California for future droughts.

In November 2014, the state legislature and California voters passed the Water Quality, Supply, Infrastructure and Improvement Act of 2014 (Water Bond), which provides $7.5 billion for water projects. The passage of the Water Bond presents an opportunity to increase funding for critical infrastructure needs while promoting local water supplies and protecting rivers, streams, wetlands and groundwater resources.

Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation in September 2014 requiring the first-ever rules regulating the pumping of groundwater in California. Widely seen as a landmark piece of legislation, effective implementation of groundwater reform will require significant funding and regulatory commitments to prevent and reverse groundwater overdraft.


Enhancing water efficiency across all sectors

Increasing water efficiency across sectors is one of the best ways to address California’s water challenges. In recent decades, the state has seen significant conservation improvements by urban water users due to efficiency measures within homes (low-flow toilets, efficient showers, etc.), but outdoor water use still remains high. Opportunities to further advance urban water efficiency are significant. For instance, the Pacific Institute has estimated that an 85% reduction in urban water use could be achieved through existing technologies -- such as replacing old, inefficient water-using devices with high-efficiency models in homes and businesses, as well as replacing lawns with low-water and xeriscaped designs -- at costs below tapping into new sources of supply.

Many California farms have already become more water efficient, but more can be done including changes in irrigation practices to reduce water use and increase crop yield; soil management practices that reduce runoff and increase the amount of water retained in the soil; and installation of water systems to increase on-farm water reuse. Improving agricultural water use efficiency will help California farms better compete in the global economy and provide water supply benefits for the entire state.

Water recycling and stormwater capture and reuse

It’s been estimated that water recycling and stormwater alone could provide 2 million acre feet per year in new local supplies – enough to meet approximately 20% of future urban water needs statewide. Many local water agencies, especially in southern California, are expanding their efforts to increase local water supplies due to limitations placed on imported water or increases in local water demands.  In addition, opportunities exist for unique partnerships with municipalities who are under strict Clean Water Act stormwater regulations.

Some California communities are beginning to implement advanced water recycling technologies to supply agricultural, industrial and commercial users.

These concepts also apply at the individual lot level. Many cities have adopted Low Impact Development or green infrastructure policies that require certain new and redevelopment projects to capture stormwater for infiltration or use on-site.  Greywater use for lawns is also allowed in California under certain guidelines.  These actions can help supplement water supplies and offset potable water demand.

Improving groundwater management

Under the new groundwater legislation, local agencies in high-risk, fast-depleting groundwater basins are required to develop sustainability plans. Effective implementation of the new legislation to achieve sustainable conditions at the local level will require adequate resourcing, support to farmers and strong leadership and collaboration by all stakeholders.

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