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Californians will adapt to living with drought, as we always have
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Californians will adapt to living with drought, as we always have

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‘Nobody’s winning’: Drought upends life in US West basin

Ben DuVal walks past a dry irrigation pipe in a field he had rented for crops this year but was unable to plant due to the water shortage, on Wednesday, June 9, 2021, in Tulelake, Calif. DuVal's family has farmed the land near the California-Oregon border for three generations, and this summer for the first time ever, he and hundreds of others who rely on irrigation from a depleted, federally managed lake aren't getting any water from it at all. (AP Photo/Nathan Howard)

Climate change is exacerbating droughts and accelerating the transformation and decline of California’s native forest and aquatic ecosystems.  As a state, we are poorly organized to manage these effects, which need extensive focused preparation.  We need to adapt (and we will make mistakes in doing so).  Our human, economic and environmental losses will be much greater, however, if we manage poorly because of delay, complacency or panic.

We are a bit better prepared for this drought than for the 2012-2016 drought, but Californians, individually and collectively, will always need to expect and prepare for drought.

With its long dry season from April until October, every year California has a worse drought than the eastern United States has ever seen. Californians weather a single dry year pretty well, but a series of dry years brings problems for the environment, for agriculture, for rural communities depending on shallow wells, and sometimes for cities forced to ration water use. 

The 2012-2016 drought brought direct economic losses of about $9 billion over five years — a nearly undetectable blip in a $2.3 trillion annual statewide economy — and no direct deaths. Those dry years, however, killed more than 100 million trees and set the stage for major wildfires and poor air quality, causing dozens of deaths and much greater property damage — mostly after the drought was declared over.

Here’s what we can do better to prepare for (but not eliminate losses from) droughts to come:

Support local effective implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (passed during the previous drought) to eliminate long-term overdraft of our aquifers, which will help sustain farms and rural communities. This will require retiring much lower-valued agricultural land in the San Joaquin Valley to allow groundwater to recover between droughts. Relying on spring runoff to recharge aquifers will be woefully insufficient.

Promote consolidation of rural water systems, which are inherently small and vulnerable.  About a third to half of them should be connected to larger neighboring water supplies to increase reliability and water quality and to lower costs. The state and counties need to exercise will and offer funding to accelerate consolidations.

Bring together scattered science-supported efforts by numerous state and federal environmental agencies to improve aquatic ecosystems. The waterfowl community sets a good example, where many agencies and stakeholders have developed integrated joint ventures with farmers to maintain wetlands for migrating birds and rice crops. But it took them 50 years.  

Adapt infrastructure and water system operations for a warmer climate. Increasing coastal wastewater reuse, and strategically increasing groundwater recharge and water conveyance, will make California more adapted to drought. Everyone using less water will help, but urban use is only 20% of all human water use in California, so more than urban conservation is needed. 

Such adaptation is nothing new to Californians. 

By adopting irrigation in the late 1800s, California became a global agricultural leader. 

By constructing large reservoir and aqueduct systems, California’s cities brought the movie, aircraft, electronics and computer industries to this attractive climate, making our state an economic powerhouse.

By investing in conservation and new water infrastructure, our cities are seeing decades of declining per capita water use, and often absolutely declining water use. Still, roughly half of urban water use is for landscape irrigation.  

Well-managed drought in California still will have economic damages, and sometimes severe local damages. But with diligent preparation, drought should not be a statewide catastrophe.

Drought conditions have already reached the most severe levels across much of the southwestern United States and officials are worried about the heightened danger of wildfires months before normal.

Jay Lund is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California at Davis. He wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.

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