Drought Emergency Ends, But Many Breakthroughs Endure

  • by Timothy Quinn
  • Apr 24, 2017
  • Voices on Water

With the stroke of a pen earlier this month, Gov. Jerry Brown ended the drought emergency he declared more than three years ago in the midst of a bone-dry winter and shrinking reservoirs.

The original declaration in January 2014 garnered national and even international media coverage. Images of ultra-low Folsom Lake and fallowed fields provided alarming visuals as the drought raged on and water managers hunkered down for some of the most challenging times in recent memory.

Today, key reservoirs are spilling and the storms keep coming. Northern California has officially set the record for the most rain and snowfall in a water year.

While the emergency is now in our rear-view mirror, it’s worth reflecting on some of the lessons and policy breakthroughs that will endure into the foreseeable future.

Value of local investments. If the lesson of the 1986-’92 drought was the need to invest in local water resources, the abiding legacy of this drought is the critical value of those investments. As the Public Policy Institute of California and others have noted, California’s urban economy remained relatively unscathed over the past several years because of the planning and investment by local water agencies.  These forward-looking investments – to the tune of $20 billion since the last major drought – paid major dividends in drought resilience and preparedness. The investments keep coming, and their values will only grow in the future.

Proposition 1. Californians approved a $7.5 billion water bond in November 2014, capping years of effort to advance a comprehensive plan to reinvest in the state’s water system and jumpstart implementation of the California Water Action Plan. Though Californians have a history of supporting water bonds, the heightened awareness of water due to drought almost certainly contributed to Proposition 1’s overwhelming 2-1 margin of approval on election day.

SGMA. At the height of the drought, California enacted the most significant water legislation in a generation – the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) of 2014. Spurred by deepening concern about groundwater overdraft and subsidence in some areas of the state, a task force of ACWA members developed recommendations that ultimately provided the basis for many key provisions of SGMA. While the overdraft crisis had been brewing for over half a century, there is no question the drought created urgency that brought stakeholders to the table. This is a tough issue, but all around the state water agencies are implementing SGMA to chart a path toward sustainable groundwater basins with healthy economies overlying them.

The resilience of agriculture. Faced with massive cuts in surface water deliveries, agricultural water managers responded with resilience. Many turned to groundwater, which added to overdraft in some areas, but they also made effective use of the water market. In addition, they advanced creative solutions such as the North Valley Recycled Water Program, a collaborative partnership that will send treated wastewater from Turlock and Modesto to productive farmland in Del Puerto Water District in the very near future.

Public attitudes toward water. ACWA member agencies and their customers stepped up in a huge way in response to the drought emergency. A permanent shift in the way Californians think about and use water is apparent up and down the state as lawns are replaced with water-wise landscapes and consumers switch to more efficient appliances. The Save Our Water program, managed by ACWA in partnership with the California Department of Water Resources, assisted hundreds of members agencies.

Throughout the drought, ACWA and its members took every opportunity to highlight the need for comprehensive solutions and build support for additional investments in drought resilient supplies. We will continue that work regardless of whether Mother Nature deals us another round of atmospheric rivers or a return to bone-dry conditions next winter.


Executive Director Timothy Quinn may be reached at timq@acwa.com

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