Aerial view at Lake Oroville showing low water level (drought conditions). View is of The Enterprise Bridge (Lumpkin Road) on the South Fork of the Feather River. Shot July 20, 2015 by Paul Hames/DWR Photography. *FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY *

ELLEN HANAK: Managing Drought in a Changing Climate: Four Essential Reforms

Aerial view at Lake Oroville showing low water level, July 20, 2015. (DWR)

Climate change is having a profound impact on California’s water resources, as evidenced by greater weather extremes, reduced snowpack, higher sea level, and changes in river flows. Models predict that more precipitation will fall as rain instead of snow, exacerbating flood risks and creating additional challenges for water supply reliability. These impacts are expected to intensify in the future.  In order to avoid the unwanted social, economic, and environmental consequences, the state’s water system will need to adapted in order to manage the greater climate extremes and growing water scarcity.

The 2012–16 drought was the hottest in the state’s recorded history and one of the driest, offering a glimpse into the future under a warming climate.  Last fall, a team of researchers at the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) studied the state’s response to the extreme drought conditions, distilling their findings down to four essential reforms that will better prepare the state to adapt to the impacts of climate change.  At the Association of Water Agencies of Ventura County’s Annual Symposium held in April of 2019, Ellen Hanak, Director of Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center gave this recap of their research.

Ms. Hanak began by noting that California’s climate is highly variable compared to the rest of the country.  While the variability makes it a hard system to manage, the good new aspect is that the state is somewhat used to dealing with droughts.

When looking at agricultural sector losses and crop insurance payments nationwide, in spite of the severe drought the state experienced from 2012 to 2016, while there was an increase in crop insurance payments during that time, there were much more crop payments to farmers in the Midwest during the last drought they experienced a few years earlier.

It also demonstrates that having irrigated agriculture and being used to having a drought every summer means that your system is somewhat adapted to it and you can weather those variabilities much better than if you are in a rain-fed system,” she said.  “So I’m going to start with that as a good news background for thinking about where we’re going in terms of thinking about future droughts.  We do have some tools.”

Ms. Hanak presented a slide with two maps; the map on the left shows the average precipitation for the 48 contiguous states and the map on the right shows the year to year variability of that precipitation.  She pointed out that the eastern half of the country is focused on managing floods while the western half of the country is drier, so water management in the west is about storing water for dry years and for irrigation for agriculture during the growing season.  Precipitation in the eastern states is more predictable while the western states tend to be more variable.

Then you look at California and it’s just crazy because of the variability and that has to do just with the fact that we’re getting hit from different angles of weather systems and storm systems and things,” she said.  “And that’s a good thing in a way, at least in terms of being prepared for what’s going to hit us.”

She next presented a slide showing statewide precipitation and temperature from 1950 to 2017.  The top graph is showing average precipitation, with the line being the mean; the years with precipitation wetter than the mean are above the line and those years that are drier than the mean are shown below.

The highlighted portion shows the recent multi-year drought.  By some measures, it was the four consecutive driest years, but not actually the longest in recent memory; the longest was 1987-1992, with another dry year in 1994.

What was really unique about the last drought was the temperature, which is shown on the lower graph.  “It was just a much warmer drought and this confirms the trend in the warming that we’re seeing globally and in many parts of the country and certainly in California,” said Ms. Hanak.  “This is why we thought this was an interesting drought to look at for learning lessons, not only for if tomorrow or next year ends up being dry but also for thinking about looking ahead a couple of decades, because those hotter temperatures just complicate things a lot when you’re thinking about how you’re going to manage your system.”

The study had 30 coauthors, many who had been looking at drought lessons across a range of sectors over the past few years.  There was a report looking at cities and suburbs, a report specifically looking at ecosystem issues, a report looking at the headwater areas, and another report on water allocation systems.   They also brought in some climate scientists who did focused on the question of whether the drought the state experienced in 2012-2016 would be the normal drought in the 2040s.

They basically tried to reproduce exactly the conditions of both this drought and also that very wet year that followed it in 2017 and reproduce that using climate models in the 2040s and found that’s going to be normal,” Ms. Hanak said.  “It doesn’t mean that we’re going to get exactly that drought but that’s going to be more of a normal kind of drought and we could well get a drought that has higher temperatures.  So one of the things it highlights for us is that it’s important to think about trying to reduce the changing in the climate but the other is that we have to get ready for managing this.”


The report summarizes the impacts of climate change into five pressures that will be important for the state’s water system:

  1. Temperature: Warming temperatures will increase water demand because it’s drier and the soils are not as moist.  Ecosystem management is harder in systems where cold water must be managed for fish because the water is not as cold, so the tradeoffs are harder, she said.
  2. Shrinking snowpack:  Warming temperatures will make the combination of rain and snow different.  Ms. Hanak noted that in the ultra-dry year of 2015, snowpack was just 5% of average whereas the precipitation was 17% of average.  “It was a dry year by all measures of precipitation, but it was worse from a snow perspective,” she said.  “Mike Dettinger coined this idea of the snow droughts and that we have to be more prepared for snow droughts.  It effects the patterns of runoff, because more precipitation is falling as rain and less is falling as snow and then the snow is melting faster because it’s being hit by rain and it’s warm and that changes the runoff patterns. It makes you have to think about how you are going to capture that water and store it if it’s not going to be in the snowpack that we typically like to have.
  3. Shorter wet seasons:  Beyond the changing runoff patterns, there will be shorter wet seasons.  The rainy season is generally October through April.  “Normally it’s a bell curve with most of the precipitation not on the shoulders and in the middle, but what they are finding is that those edges are getting shaved off,” said Ms. Hanak.  “So you’re not getting as much rain in the early part of the fall and usually the late part of the spring.  That’s really important for fire management as that was one of the factors that led to the Carr Fire happening; probably in a more historic climate, that would have been less likely because it would have already rained a fair bit by the time that happened.”
  4. More volatile precipitation:  The climate models don’t show that precipitation is going to be necessarily higher or lower, they seem to be projecting that the big precipitation events will come from bigger storms.  “There will be shorter wet seasons with more in the middle from these big storms,” she said.  “And there will be more volatile precipitation from year to year, so those charts of variability from year to year – amp it up in terms of drier drys and wetter wets.  So you have to be prepared for a drier dry, and you have to be prepared for the wetter wet and keeping people out of harm’s way.  Our flood system and our water supply system are very interconnected because we tend to use surface reservoirs to manage both of those.”
  5. Rising sea levels:  This will be important for those who manage coastal aquifers because it can make managing salinity in the aquifer much more difficult, as well as those who manage coastal wastewater plants.  It’s also important for those who depend on water imported through the Delta because of salinity barrier management.  “Right now, it’s a tidal system and seawater wants to go in at certain times so it has to be managed to keep it fresh enough so that the water is good both within the Delta and for exports for ag and municipal uses,” explained Ms. Hanak.  “Rising seas just means you have to have more of a hydraulic barrier for that … there’s a basically a ‘sea level tax’ on Delta exports if you look overtime at what would happen.  As we were looking at these numbers, maybe by 2050, 2060 another half a million acre-feet just from salinity management potentially.”

We don’t have a full crystal ball yet but the models are getting better on the water side where the average is about the same in terms of total volume, but very different patterns of management with less snow, so you need to think about how you are going to juggle that and manage it and prepare,” she said.


So they considered those climate pressures and looking at the different sectors of urban, agrilculte, rural communities, and ecosystems, and they came up with four recommendations for reform.

Reform 1: Planning matters.

Ms. Hanak acknowledged that we already do a lot of planning in California, but in the urban sector, by and large, the fact that there had been so much planning and actual investment occurring meant that cities came through this drought much better than in 1987-1992, when the urban agencies were not as well prepared.

Strengthen urban water management plans.A lot of investments have been going into long-term demand management and efficiency, but also how to work better together as a system and how to build a portfolio of supplies and that work needs to continue,” she said.  “The Central Coast was more vulnerable than parts of the state in part because there’s not as much interconnection among the water users to be able to have redundancies in the system.”

SGMA implementation will be important; key will be ensuring effective groundwater sustainability plans.  “Groundwater is our drought reserve,” Ms. Hanak said.  “Third year into the drought, the surface water reservoirs cannot do much in terms of extra drought water savings for you no matter where you are in the state, so figuring out how to make sure that that drought reserve is there when it’s a drought is going to be key.  I think it’s not by chance that we got a groundwater law in California in 2014 about 100 years after we got our modern water code and it was because it was starting to look really bad in a lot of places with all of the consequences of overpumping over a sustained period which leads to land sinking, wells going dry, and big capital investments for irrigation as well as for communities.”

Drinking water plans need to be developed for rural communities.  The map on the slide shows the domestic wells that went dry in orange and the green dots are communities that reached out for emergency assistance during the drought.  “The state recognized this was a problem early on and set up strike teams to try to help with it, but it would be better for us to anticipate these things so that we can deal with them proactively and know who is vulnerable,” she said.  “It doesn’t mean you can’t make everybody not vulnerable but know who is vulnerable ahead of time so that they aren’t waiting six months until some solution can come to them.”

Prepare ecosystem drought plans.  “This is the idea of getting better about preparing for years that are going to be dry and the years that are going to be wet, and what you’re going to do with the scarce water, and how you’re going to think about using it in the smartest way possible,” she said.

Reform 2: Upgrade the water grid.

The water grid is not exactly like the energy grid or the transportation grid, but it does have similarities in the sense of the connected way that water is moved from where it is to where it is needed, she said.  The map on the left is the existing statewide water infrastructure which includes the Central Valley Project, the State Water Project, and other regional water systems.  The circles are surface reservoirs that store water for the summers but also have to be empty enough in the winter to make room for floodwaters.  The blue lines are rivers or built conveyance.

The map on the right depicts the groundwater basins with the critically overdrafted basins shown in dark green.  “We have to be thinking more actively about how to connect above ground management and the below ground management, so we need to repair what’s broken and upgrade capacity, but do it in the context of thinking about it as a system with surface water and groundwater,” Ms. Hanak said.  “This is so important is because we can’t economically capture all of the lost snowpack and capture all the lost storage from the change in runoff patterns with more surface storage, partly because the best places have already been built.  There’s probably going to be some good options for expanding surface storage, but its expensive.  We have a lot of additional potential for storage underground, too, so thinking about how to manage these together is going to be better economically.”

She acknowledged that conjunctive use is already being done in some areas but we have to get better at it.  “It involves integrating the way different projects work together, such as getting folks to be willing to store their drought water from a surface reservoir in somebody else’s groundwater basin and having the agreements that you’re going to be held harmless or made whole,” she said.  “There are places in the state that are already far along in doing this.  We have to share those lessons and figure out how to do this better and more.”

Reform 3: Update the water allocation rules.

Water allocation rules need to be adjusted so that folks can get what they need, not necessarily what they want, Ms. Hanak said.  “What we found looking at this was that when the State Board was faced with the need to curtail surface water diversions for the first time since the late 70s, there was almost no institutional memory even there.  There wasn’t a good game plan and there are different laws and rules and ways that different types of water are regulated, so there wasn’t a lot of clarity on even how they could do that.  They got sued and didn’t have enough data to back up what they needed to do, so that’s the idea of improving water rights administration so that we’re ready to figure out how to do those kinds of cutbacks fairly, taking into account water users as well as environmental needs and small communities.”

It also means that in wet times, we have to be able to capture and store more water, she said, noting that there is a lot of interest right now in groundwater recharge especially with SGMA deadlines looming.  “We don’t have processes and procedures in place so that we’re ready to go so that when that storm is coming in and we can be ready to divert and get it into the ground,” she said.  “That requires local organization, but it also the state and federal water projects and the State Water Board to be able to be ready to say yes, you can take it, and you can move it.

Streamlining trading and banking is going to be important.  This includes local trading, and a lot of folks are looking to Ventura as one of the early experiments in groundwater trading, she said, noting that a lot of this kind of trading is happening already in a few parts of the state that have adjudicated basins.  “Adjudication can be a good thing,” she said.  “It’s not the only way to do this, but it’s not a crisis necessarily either and a lot of times, adjudications end up being settlements.  It’s a way of getting people to the table to have a hard conversation, so don’t necessarily view it as the end of the world.”

Give the environment a water budget.  This idea is about having better clarity on what water the environment will get in different kinds of water years, but also giving environmental managers more flexibility to manage that water and to have a seat at the table with everybody else, said Ms. Hanak.  “The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge is a good protype for that in the way we manage water for waterbirds in the Central Valley,” she said.  “They were cut way back also, but they did have a budget they could plan with, and they managed to get by without a lot of damage to the ecosystem.”

Reform 4: Find the money.

Most of the funding used to fund investments in water infrastructure and projects – about 85% – comes from local water users through rates, local taxes, and assessments;  the state provides about 11-12% and federal funding is only about 3-4%.

That money is very valuable for co-funding projects and things so I don’t want to minimize it but it’s important to keep in mind that the state is not running the show and the feds are not providing all that much money, so local water users are likely going to have to be on the hook for paying for a lot of the upgrades in the storage and conveyance.”

Where water users should be looking for funding help from state and federal agencies is for the three ‘fiscal orphans’ which Ms. Hanak defined as parts of the water sector that don’t have rates to support them and can’t be taxed: poor rural communities, flood protection, and ecosystems.  “When they don’t get the money, it causes all kinds of ripple problems for everything else,” she said.  “It’s not a big ticket item for the fix for poor rural communities who don’t have safe drinking water – it’s on the order of $100 million a year that we need relative to $30 billion that we spend overall.  Flood protection is an area that between the state and federal money, we’re just way behind and we’re going to be more behind as things go forward with the changes.  And with ecosystems, we have to think creatively about finding some ways to make that really effectively spent.  I love the ideas of combining water and habitat, and smart management for multiple benefits.”

The graph on the slide shows that while state bonds can help, they can’t do it all.  While the 2000s were a great decade for state water bonds and the 2010s not too bad, in November, Prop 3 failed.  “I think a lot of folks were counting on that money for a lot of different things, so I expect that you’re going to get another bond on your ballot in the not too distant future,” she said.  “We don’t advocate for bonds or take any specific positions on them, but our message is that they are not always easy to pass and you have to think carefully about where do you really want the bond money to go.  Is it just to give you a boost on a local water supply project that you could get from your ratepayers or is it to help you deal with an ecosystem problem?  I would probably say it’s better to go for the other because you’re still going to have that ecosystem problem if you don’t have the money for that.”


Ms. Hanak said there are some reasons to be optimistic about our ability to adapt our water sector to changes in the decades to come.  “That’s because a lot of the things that we’re talking about here are already underway, but we have to get better at it,” she said.  “The urban sector has been adapting but anything we can do to improve the way the water grid works together, as every region has the potential to have these grids work better.  In the Bay Area where I live, parties that used to be suing each other now have interties and have sharing agreements; it’s very effective and it was really useful for us during the drought.”

Groundwater sustainability is going to be key and progress is underway on the safe drinking water issues, she said.  “The reason for pessimism and the heavy lift to me is on the environment.  Efforts have not stopped the decline of aquatic species, climate pressures are increasing that risk, and we need more flexible management.  That’s our take on thinking about the settlement or the voluntary agreements and all of that, to me and my colleagues, it’s very much about thinking flexibly so you can use the water and the other resources in as smart a way as possible.  The Yuba Accord to me is a prototype example of how we have to think about this.”

So preparing for droughts will require rainbows after the storm, and it requires all hands on deck from every stakeholder that cares about water at all levels of government, but we have a lot of great leaders, so that’s another reason for optimism.”


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