Droughts and Progress – Lessons from California’s 2012-2016 Drought


California WaterBlog

By Jay Lund, Josue Medellin, John Durand, and Kathleen Stone


Lake Cachuma in Southern California, February 2017

Droughts and floods have always tested water management, driven water systems improvements, and helped water organizations and users maintain focus and discipline.  California’s 2012-2016 drought and the very wet 2017 water year were such tests.  Historically, major droughts accelerate innovation and are career tests for agency and political leaders.  We recently summarized major lessons from California’s 2012-2016 drought (Lund et al. 2018). (Wet year failures from 2017 brought additional lessons.)

California accommodated the most recent droughts and floods fairly well – with some important exceptions.  It is worthwhile to show how such a large drought could have such small impacts on most Californians, and to draw lessons for how all sectors might reduce drought impacts in the next inevitable drought.  Contrasts for four sectors are particularly poignant.  Future droughts and floods are expected to be greater and perhaps more frequent, so recent relative success should not encourage complacency.

Managed well and poorly

California’s large urban systems fared well in the drought.  This contrasted with previous major droughts in 1976-77 and 1988-92, when major water systems were forced into mandatory water conservation.  Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara (with relatively isolated water supply systems) were the only major cities which imposed mandatory use reductions due to local water supply shortages, for one year each of the 5-year drought.  Despite sizable population growth since previous droughts, major urban areas were well prepared for this drought due to increasing water conservation (substantially driven by more conserving plumbing standards) and major improvements in infrastructure and regional cooperation (expanded groundwater and surface storage, wastewater reuse in southern California, drought plans, and water trades and markets) since previous major droughts.  In 2015, mandatory statewide reduction in urban water use by 25%, to prepare for a longer drought, led to negligible regional economic impacts because it was accommodated mostly by reducing urban landscape irrigation (normally about 50% of statewide annual urban water use).



Fallowed field in southern Central Valley, 2015

Most agricultural areas largely continued to prosper during the drought, thanks largely to groundwater access, good national and global commodity prices, and flexible operations and water trades.  However, agricultural production and management was challenged widely and some farming areas found themselves unprepared and suffered considerable losses.  Again, preparation was key to minimizing losses.  The prominent importance of groundwater led to state regulation of groundwater in 2014 to help ensure adequate sustainable groundwater supplies for more profitable perennial crops, which are more expensive to fallow in dry years.

Rural drinking water supplies faced sometimes severe challenges, largely due to additional agricultural pumping from deeper, larger-capacity wells.  These small systems, which are more vulnerable under many conditions, remain one of California’s most challenging, but more solvable water problems.  A modest amount of regular funding, well organized and applied, along with better sustained groundwater levels, would address the worst of this problem for future droughts.


(For more on this article, go here.)