Low water conditions at Enterprise Bridge at Lake Oroville in Butte County, California. On this date, the water storage was 1,222,335 acre-feet (AF), 35 percent of the total capacity. Photo taken October 4, 2022. Florence Low / DWR

JEANINE JONES: Drought and lessons learned

At the January meeting of the California Water Commission, Jeanine Jones took the commissioners through the history of past droughts and the lessons learned.  As Division Chief for Interstate Resources Management at the California Department of Water Resources, Ms. Jones provides insights on how the state tackles existing issues and future preparedness for drought.

This presentation was part of a series of panel discussions that the Commission has heard in recent months as part of their work on Action 26.3 of the Newsom Administration’s Water Resilience Portfolio, developing strategies to protect communities and fish and wildlife in the event of drought lasting at least six years.

Ms. Jones began by noting there are different interpretations of what drought means.  There are meteorological droughts, hydrological droughts, regulatory droughts, as well as drought indices and other sector-based definitions.  The state tends to focus on drought as a function of its impacts, which are typically regional or local, because it is the impacts that drive the responses.

A common response to drought is the proclamation of a drought emergency.  Droughts are a different type of emergency when compared to events like floods, fires, and earthquakes due to their very slow timescale.  Declaring a drought emergency allows the Governor to direct state resources to respond to it.

The variability of precipitation

California has very highly variable annual precipitation and large seasonal precipitation variability.  This year, 2023, is an example of that.  The state has experienced above-average precipitation, and storage in reservoirs is surging.

“Not to say that the drought is by any means over,” said Ms. Jones.  “If you think about the groundwater, we have depleted much of our groundwater storage by having numerous drought years in the last decade or so, and one even very wet year will not recover that groundwater storage.  So, in that sense, we’re still in the woods.  But certainly, this is much better than where we were at this time last year.”

Studies of paleo records show that drought is a natural feature of California’s climate.  The Department has funded reconstructions using tree rings for the Sacramento River basin, the San Joaquin River basin, and the Colorado River basin going back over a thousand years.  The historical record has many more significant dry periods, sometimes twice as long as the state experienced in the droughts of the last 150 years.

The Department has also funded studies for smaller watersheds, such as Southern California, to help agencies manage their risks.

“Think about how many two-year droughts we had in the past,” said Ms. Jones.  “How many three-year droughts, four-year droughts, five-year droughts, etc?  Because these are all things you consider when you think about how much reliability to have in your supplies and how much you can afford.  Because realistically, there’s always a trade-off between risk and reliability.”

The graph below shows the annual statewide runoff for 1900 to 2020.  “We are in the downward-sloping portion of that smooth curve,” Ms. Jones pointed out.  “Interestingly enough, the slope is about the same as one of our driest periods in the historical record, which was the dry periods in the 1920s and 1930s, which actually was a severely dry time in the historical record.  But we are starting from a lower base.  And the 21st century has not been great in terms of water supply availability.”

21st century & 20th century droughts not the same

The slide lists the droughts and how long they lasted.  Ms. Jones pointed out that many of them are in the recent part of the historical record.  She also noted that the conditions in the last two droughts have not had the same impacts as the large historical droughts.

“If we think about our prior drought, we had some unfortunate records set then: warmest years on record, record low statewide snowpack of only 5% of average in 2015, zero allocation to CVP ag contractors, and the first-ever state emergency response for dry private wells, not something the state had really dealt with before,” she said.  “On the good news side, there is some increased use of new technologies for things like monitoring land subsidence.”

“In our present drought, we’ve gone from a single dry year for the CVP ag contractors to two years of zero allocation and a first-ever M&I Health and Safety only allocation on the CVP side, which is certainly disturbing.  We’ve seen a first-ever declared shortage in the Lower Colorado River Basin, not affecting California last year, but it will be a concern we talk about this year.  And we’re seeing the fingerprints of climate change and things like runoff being only a fraction of what we would say it should have been.  Because we’re dealing now with a warming world, and in a warming world, there’s essentially a tax on the water system.  And we don’t get the runoff into our reservoirs and groundwater basins that we saw previously.  And we’re also now seeing groundwater impacts in the Sacramento Valley, which is normally considered the San Joaquin Valley problem because normally the Sacramento Valley is wetter and has been relatively spared on the groundwater impact side.”

The Colorado River is in uncharted territory, with the storage in the nation’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, severely depleted.  As a result, the Colorado River basin states are currently negotiating with the Department of the Interior to take the first-ever significant cutbacks in the system.

“Historically, the Colorado River has been California’s most reliable surface water supply in drought,” said Ms. Jones.  “Having that reliability has allowed us to shift among sources, so to speak, to help mitigate drought impacts.  But that’s not something we can count on in the future.”

So what’s changed over the decades?  On the upside, extensive interconnections exist between water projects and urban suppliers, and we have much greater experience with water transfers.  There is now groundwater management legislation, and since the mid-1990s, there has been substantial state grant funding for local projects.  However, on the downside, it’s getting warmer, and our wildfire risk is increasing.  There is increased acreage of permanent plantings, which has hardened demand.  Land subsidence exists in historically unaffected areas, and small water system and private well owner problems have become more widespread.

“Clearly, we are seeing drought happening in a warming climate,” Ms. Jones said.  “We have significant cutbacks in the major surface water supplies that we hadn’t seen before.”

Progress since the 2007-09 drought

The CASGEM legislation in 1990, followed by SGMA, has provided statewide groundwater data.  It was a significant improvement because before, it was unknown what was happening with groundwater in many areas of the state.  This data is most important for urban and ag suppliers during droughts.

Ms. Jones said the state has made improvements in dealing with impacts on small water systems.  It’s long been known that droughts impact small water systems, but the funding and the structures to deal with that haven’t been there.  The realization that more needed to be done for small systems kicked in during the last drought and is continuing now, she said.

However, the one area where the state hasn’t made progress is in the longer-range forecasting to support more efficient water and infrastructure management.  Ms. Jones noted that the white areas on the map are areas where there is no more skill in seasonal forecasts than in predicting average weather conditions; most of the map is white.

“The highest skill score they have on this graphic is maybe 40, and that’s on a scale that goes up to 100,” she said.  “So if you were in college and got 40 out of 100 on a test, how would you be doing?  Not very well.”

The state has been experiencing a lot of catastrophic wildfires.  All but two of the state’s largest and most damaging wildfires have occurred from 2000 onwards.

“That has created several new implications for water systems,” she said.  “Previously, when there was a wildfire, maybe there was a small water system out in a very rural area that saw a little bit of damage, but now we are now seeing significantly increased damage to larger water systems and big infrastructure.”

“We’ve now seen massive destruction of parts of large urban water distribution systems, such as in Santa Rosa, the Camp Fire in Butte County, and other communities.   This is a completely different paradigm than what we saw in terms of fire impacts in the past and represents another area of planning that water agencies need to think more about.”

Lessons learned

The big lesson from past droughts is that, clearly, the impacts are very site-specific.  “Frankly, it depends on what you can afford in terms of the reliability of your water system,” said Ms. Jones.  “But the one thing that really jumps out is the risk factor with small water systems, which struggle with several challenges, such as not enough money, not large enough ratepayer base, lack of technical capacity – all those kinds of things.”

Clearly, rising temperatures are creating new impacts and intensifying others.  “The path that really leads us down is to thinking about shifting our way of thinking about drought, where it’s not just an occasional emergency that happens every once in a while,” said Ms. Jones.  “We’re seeing a transition to a warmer and drier climate, which has implications for how we manage resources and how we think about investing.”

Drought response and the budget

The response from the state to the drought has been different in each of the major state droughts because of different circumstances, perhaps most importantly, the budget implications, she said.

During this current drought, the state has been making extraordinary amounts of funding available in grants from the general fund for drought response, which she noted is unprecedented and reflects the state’s budget surplus.  During the 2012-2016 drought, there wasn’t a budget surplus, but there was a water bond that the voters approved shortly before, which provided a lot of funding to respond to drought issues.

The drought of 2007-09 occurred during the great recession of 2008, and a lot of discussion on reorganizing things to spend less state money on them.  During the 1987-1992 drought, the state was having financial difficulties and discussing layoffs; there was not a lot of money for grants.

Ms. Jones pointed out that you cannot assume that substantial state financial aid will be available in future droughts, as it depends on state budget circumstances.  “So as you think about your charge to address how California should plan for future droughts, you have to be cognizant that the tools you have depend upon the circumstances of the time,” she said.

During droughts, we tend to build capacity in different areas; Ms. Jones noted that it’s often cheaper to build capacity than massive grant programs where you don’t have the money.  “So in the 1987-92 drought, when the state was essentially broke, we made substantial progress in how to do water transfers.  Substantial changes were made to the water code with legislation saying that if you conserve water intentionally, you have a right to transfer that water to someone else and not lose your water right.  There was a lot of work that went into that.”

Data and tools

“In the previous drought, because of the initial investment with the CASGEM legislation and the subsequent enactment of SGMA, we could use some of that bond funding available to make up for decades of no investment in groundwater data.  So we did things such as spin up the inSAR, or satellite-based monitoring of land subsidence as a result of groundwater extraction; we digitized literally hundreds of 1000s of paper records on things like well construction details and put that all online.  It was a major investment that is now helping everyone going forward.”

“As we look at the current drought, we’re clearly seeing the need to deal with the climate change angle and think about what we can do to help us deal with that, such as tools for better forecasting and planning.”

Discussion period

Commissioner Alexandre Makler asked Ms. Jones  if in planning for infrastructure, is it how much reliability for how much you want to spend? Is it risk management? Can we draw any causation with climate change with respect to the period of a drought duration? Is that changing?

“Because our precipitation is so variable year to year, it’s probably better to think about what climate change does to relative amounts that we get,” replied Ms. Jones.  “So if we used to get 100% of average, and now we only get 70, or whatever the number is.  Another metric where we can clearly attempt to use modeling tools to put some numbers on it, is to look at the loss in run off efficiency. And we actually have been funding work in that area.  We can look at, for example, the 76-77 drought, and compare that to conditions now and see what the hit on the system has been, so to speak from the warmer environment.  So how much more are we losing in terms of runoff efficiency?”

“We use the drought duration example for a water agency audience because historically the thought has been that we can survive a three year drought. And in fact, the Urban Water Management Planning Act used to require larger groups to plan for only a three year drought. That legislation was amended in 2018 to now require them to plan for a five year drought. But it’s useful for water agencies who are thinking in that planning framework, should I really be thinking about something longer? And can I afford that? Because the idea is there that they’re living off of stored supplies, for example, whether it’s reservoir or groundwater storage, and how does that fit with their demand patterns and what they might see from annual supplies.”

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