Lessons from the Field: Drought in California

Lessons from the Field: Drought in California

In April, the U.S. drought monitor update announced that 100% of the state of California is currently in drought. And while drought conditions through December to April might be normal for Australia where it’s summer in these months, in the Northern Hemisphere it’s really weird.

The Sierra Nevada snowpack is at record lows, the Governor declared a state of emergency in January, 2014 and compulsory water restrictions are being imposed in some parts of the state for the first time ever.

Climate Access reached out to some of our members who are working on water issues in California for their thoughts on what challenges they’re facing as the drought continues into a possibly extreme El Niño summer and the lessons they’re learning from the lived reality of drought.

Julie Dixon, Senior Program Director, Resource Media

The severity of the 2014 drought has raised awareness of the responsibility for every sector to conserve water. There is no getting around the fact that everyone – farmers, fish and communities – are all going to get less water this summer and likely beyond. This message permeated the media coverage early on, taking the wind out of efforts by political extremists in Congress to use foundational environmental laws as a scapegoat for the water crisis, resulting in a more balanced bill from the Senate side.

The most important lesson is that politics almost always gets in the way of reason. The Senate bill originally included $300 million for conservation and efficiency measures, aid to low-income farmworkers affected by the drought, tools to help farmers get through the crisis, and projects to address drinking-water quality. That $300 million is gone baby gone, stripped out in order to get Republican support for the bill.

The biggest challenge going forward with the continuation of the drought leading into summer will be changing how all Californians think about how we use – and waste – water. Deliveries are being cut to both Agriculture and communities, with predictions of further mandatory reductions for residential use. It will be tough to get everyone on board the conservation wagon when they feel like they are already doing their share. With Congress contemplating drought legislation that will permanently weaken laws that protect rivers, streams and fish, it will be critically important to repeat the mantra that the reason we’re in a drought is because it didn’t rain; eliminating environmental protections won’t create any new water.


Mark Angelo, river advocate, World Rivers Day chair

I just finished filming the final segment of the upcoming feature length documentary, RiverBlue in California. Our time there gave me a chance to return to the rivers of my youth and, while I had often experienced brown countryside there in the middle of summer, I wasn’t used to seeing it in the spring.

California is now in the midst of a 3 year drought; a period which may turn out to be the driest in 500 years.

Conditions like this affect rivers in many ways. A smaller snowpack means severely reduced flows in many rivers by mid summer. Lower flows usually mean higher water temperatures, which in turn have a stressful impact on fish. Less precipitation also means that aquifers can’t recharge. This results in lower water tables, which can adversely impact river flows and the health of aquatic ecosystems. Aside from significant adverse affects on environmental values, there is also an array of social and economic consequences.

The conservation group, American Rivers, recently listed the San Joaquin, California’s largest river, as America’s most endangered waterway. But in reality, a number of other California rivers could have easily been listed as endangered as well.

If the current drought continues, the state will have some difficult choices ahead regarding water allocation, especially between domestic needs and the agricultural sector.

Reflecting on my time there, the situation in much of California clearly highlights the extent to which climate change, water and rivers are so extensively intertwined!


Richard E. Bicknell, Supervising Ranger, City of Palo Alto Baylands image © 2014 Palo Alto Online

Most significant development: Water cutbacks are everywhere; potentially the most dangerous water cutback involves less training fighting wild land fire in a year when wild land fire will likely be frequent and extreme.

Most important lesson: With climate change a more or less scientifically proven fact, droughts and extreme/weird weather will be with us for a long time. We should think of water conservation not as a good for me today practice; but instead as a good for us all forever practice.

Biggest challenge: Habitat restoration and the need to balance water use for planting and watering with the need to conserve water use.

image via cc, Jason Morrison, flickr