Learning From the Last Drought

As we approach April, which marks the end of California’s traditional rainy season, it is almost certain that our state will experience a second dry year. By some measures, our hydrology is tracking with 2014 and 2015 – the two driest years of California’s last severe drought. Water users that rely on our state and federal water projects can expect a small fraction of average water deliveries, imperiled fish species are more vulnerable as water flows diminish, and local water districts are readying conservation campaigns.

As we address dry conditions and prepare for what could evolve into a prolonged drought, now is the perfect time to reflect on lessons from the recent 2012-16 drought. Today the Natural Resources Agency published a comprehensive review of major State actions taken during the 2012-16 drought. The report describes in detail challenges encountered, notable successes, and areas for improvement in the management of drinking water, water rights, water supply, water quality, fish and wildlife, water conservation, fire protection, emergency human assistance, and agriculture. Most importantly, the report captures key lessons learned that can inform our efforts moving forward. Central among these lessons is to proactive prepare and act early.

The many State agencies that worked together to produce this report have been coordinating for months to prepare for anticipated challenges if dry conditions last: increased risk of water shortages in small water systems and private residential wells, reduced flows and warming temperatures in streams and rivers that threaten salmon and other native fish, more harmful algal blooms, reduced water supplies for agriculture production, intensified groundwater pumping, and elevated catastrophic wildfire risk.

We take to heart the recommendations in the report. These include providing longer lead times for State drought response, dedicating staff to ongoing drought preparedness and response work, better accounting for wildlife needs before and during drought, improving the quality and timeliness of forecasting and data, and restoring forest health in upper watersheds. Some recommendations for State action in this report are narrow, others are broad, but all fit within the Newsom Administration’s Water Resilience Portfolio, which is an effort to address long-standing water problems and strengthen California’s ability to cope with a changing climate.

The last drought catalyzed new laws and policies that are helping regions build resilience. These include the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Act, and the “conservation as a way of life” laws that will lead to new indoor and outdoor water use efficiency standards. These groundbreaking laws demonstrate how California emerges from each severe drought better prepared for the next. This report continues that progress. Through this comprehensive retrospective of the last drought, we are better prepared to tackle the dry conditions we now face and the uncertain hydrologic future that awaits us.