By Ellen Hanak and Jeffrey Mount.
A spate of recent news articles have reinforced what most Californians already know: the state is locked in a grim drought, with unusually warm temperatures and near-record low snowpack. Since this is the fourth consecutive dry year, reserves are low and water scarcity will be acute in some farming regions and watersheds.
In our new report, Policy Priorities for Managing Drought, we highlight four areas that need reform to reduce the economic, social, and environmental harm from drought in California: 1) improving water use information; 2) setting clear goals and priorities for public health and the environment; 3) promoting water conservation and more resilient water supplies; and 4) strengthening environmental management.
The third item on this list – promoting conservation and more resilient supplies – refers to steps needed to improve the ability of both urban and agricultural areas to weather droughts. California’s urban water agencies are already in much better shape than they would have been, thanks to significant investments since the early 1990s in conservation, local storage, alternative supplies like highly treated wastewater, and new connections between neighboring water systems. But cities need to redouble their efforts. In particular, they can do much more to reduce landscape irrigation, which still accounts for half of urban use. Financial incentives like rebates for replacing turf with more drought-tolerant plants can help. Yet to encourage widespread change in habits, cities also need to adopt water rates that send a strong signal to customers who are using too much water outdoors.
For California’s farmers—who require large volumes of water for irrigation during the dry growing season—the options are somewhat different. Investments in more efficient irrigation technology provide numerous benefits: higher quality produce, lower use of pesticides and chemicals, and higher yields. But in most places this technology doesn’t free up new water. That’s because the water not consumed by crops in less efficient irrigation systems either returns to rivers or recharges groundwater basins, where it gets reused. For farmers, one of the best drought adaptation tools is a well-functioning water market, which can help get water from willing sellers to willing buyers.
The market helped many farmers keep their orchards and vineyards alive last year, and it will help this year too. (And as the recent purchase of some water by Southern California’s large urban water wholesaler demonstrates, the market can also help cities bolster critical drought reserves.)
Yesterday the State Water Resources Control Board reauthorized—and amped up—some urban outdoor water use restrictions as a way to push the conservation efforts of local water agencies. In our report, we suggest the board could also take steps to promote the water market. In particular, some local irrigation districts that have abundant supplies still restrict sales outside of their districts, even when farmers in these districts would be willing to sell. Just as excess landscape watering in cities can be considered unreasonable during droughts, prohibiting water trades could also be considered unreasonable. Allowing scarce water to move to where it’s most needed would help all of California get through this drought.