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Water Scarcity and Drought in California, Greater Implications for California and the

Western United States: Situational Analysis

Katie Buchan
University of Idaho
8 March 2015


Water has always been a precious resource in the western United States. This has become
painfully apparent as California enters the fourth year of the worst drought on record since
officials began recording data in 1895. Short term impacts from the drought are already apparent
in the form of surface water reduction, with long term impacts expected in groundwater
depletion. To date, the drought has resulted in an economic loss of approximately $2.2 billion,
which is expected to rise to $3 billion if similar climatic conditions persist into 2015 (Howitt,
Short-term impacts
The most immediate impacts from this drought are already being felt by California
residents and workers. Areas that rely heavily on agriculture have experienced the most severe
impacts. In the Central Valley, where agriculture is the primary industry, producers were forced
to take 428,000 acres of irrigated cropland out of production in 2014 to cope with the lack of
water, resulting in the loss of approximately 17,000 agricultural jobs. Agricultural water users
will continue to face water scarcity-associated problems in the upcoming year (Pacific Institute,
The widespread impacts of the drought are just beginning to affect the vast majority of
Californians economically and socially. These impacts are likely to be felt long into the future as
the magnitude of the issue increases. For the general public in metropolitan areas like Los
Angeles and San Francisco, water prices have risen and are predicted to continue to rise, partly
due to water scarcity and partly as an incentive to decrease water use. Water restrictions have
been implemented in many districts; many have begun dictating timing and use of water with
fines used to enforce compliance. Also, high-value California crops, such as almonds, have seen

consumer price increases as water scarcity impacts those operations. Generation of power from
hydroelectric dams has also dropped due to the fluctuations in stream flows and lower
precipitation input.
Long-term impacts
Due to reduced soil moisture, vegetation mortality and warmer temperatures, wildfires
are likely to become more frequent and more severe, potentially starting sooner and lasting
longer than the normal fire season (Herring et. al, 2014). Natural ecosystems will be
compromised, specifically wetlands, estuaries and fisheries due to the lack of precipitation and
continued diversions. An increased reliance on groundwater pumping to compensate for the lack
of surface water will become increasingly controversial as aquifers are pumped at rates which are
historically unprecedented. On average, groundwater provides 38% of California's water supply
on an average year and approximately 60% during a drought (Borchers et. al., 2014). Borchers
et. al also noted that pumping of groundwater has been unregulated in the past, which has
resulted in an overdraft of the Central Valley aquifer system, such that more water has
historically been pumped than is naturally recharged, leading to an overall decrease in the
aquifers capacity. Though legislation is being developed to better regulate groundwater
pumping, some effects have already become evident. Land subsidence, dry wells, and decreased
stream recharge from groundwater have all negatively impacted California communities and
Though the western United States has always been a water-limited system, in recent years
dry conditions coupled with demand from agricultural development and urban expansion has

exceeded the supply, unbalancing California's water system. A growing gap between human
demands and natural supply has been unequivocally shown during the current drought event.
Causes of the drought are still being studied by numerous research organizations, but scientists
have found evidence that the extreme atmospheric conditions that have precipitated the current
drought are more likely to occur as a result of global climate change (Herring et al. 2014).
Though media coverage of the drought has been significant, coverage has not impacted
all sectors. Though highlighting communities in the Central Valley and endangered ecosystems
like the San Joaquin Delta, coverage of the impacts of urban water use has been limited (major
metropolitan water conservation and rationing has only recently been implemented with a degree
of consistency). Additionally, since the majority of the agricultural industry has remained
functional through increased groundwater pumping, the significance of the problem has been
concealed by depleting reserves not readily apparent or observed by the general population.
Recent Efforts
Though the present drought began in 2011, water use restrictions were not implemented
to a significant extent until 2014. Many metropolitan districts have now implemented mandatory
and/or voluntary restrictions and measures in an effort to encourage residents to conserve water,
for example by limiting the watering of lawns, car washing, swimming pool filling, pavedsurface washing and other non-essential uses. Districts in agricultural areas have enacted
fallowing programs where agricultural land is taken out of production to conserve water. Several
districts have enacted steeper water rates if residents exceed their metered water allotment.
Since these measures were only recently enacted, results have been somewhat limited although
overall, Californians have begun to decrease their water use, especially after Governor Jerry

Brown of California asked all residents to cut their water use by 20% using voluntary waste
minimizing efforts. After a wetter December in 2014, California saw a 22 percent net reduction
in water use, exceeding the voluntary amount the governor had requested. However, after a dry
January, that reduction had slipped back up to only 9 percent, well off the target. Given the
mixed results of these efforts, stricter regulations will likely be imposed and alternative
conservation strategies will need to be applied.
Scope and Urgency
The effect of the California drought is widespread and not always directly apparent.
Indirect effects are not always portrayed to the public in an accurate or accessible manner, with
the result that most of the population remains disconnected from the real issue. A reduction in
surface water inputs can be seen on the land, but the fact that these losses are being offset by
increased groundwater pumping is not a subject that has been communicated effectively to the
general populous.
The length and severity of the current drought makes this an urgent issue that needs to be
addressed in the short-term for Californians and for all residents of the western U.S, who may
experience similar droughts in the long-term. Although drought events are becoming more
common in recent decades, the public, managers, agricultural professionals and scientists do
have a number of tools at their disposal to allow them to address the issue. It is absolutely vital
that the scope of this problem is made publicly accessible to ensure the success of conservation
and planning efforts.
Currently, 98% of California is in moderate drought conditions with 67% of the state in a
severe drought state (shown in Figure 1 below).

Figure 1. Drought severity map from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln State Drought Monitoring
Service 2015.

The impacts of this drought have been felt most directly in agricultural communities, but
as the drought has progressed, nearly all California residents have been affected to varying
degrees through increased water pricing and restrictions as noted above. A drought of this
magnitude is unprecedented in state history and much can be learned from communicating the
breadth of this issue now and for future generations across the West. Droughts have the
potential to become more frequent, severe and damaging if new planning and management
strategies are not employed. Should this issue remain unaddressed, significant economic losses
are likely to become more frequent. Dialogues between competing users, water managers,
policy-makers and communities will be ineffectual and result in reliance upon an unsustainable
system of water harvesting.
Recent Developments

Recent advances in technology have made it clear that much can be done to minimize waste in
Californias water system. Studies compiled by the Pacific Institute have led scientists to suggest
that improved agricultural water use efficiency could save between 5.6 and 6.6 million acre feet
of water per year while maintaining current crop acreage. By utilizing more efficient technology
and landscaping and by repairing existing infrastructure, between 2.9 and 5.2 million acre feet of
water can be saved per year in urban areas. Increased water reuse would reduce energy,
diversions from streams and wastewater pollution; and has the potential to save 1.2 to 1.8 million
acre feet of water per year. Expanding infrastructure for storm water recapture in urban areas
could augment existing supplies, adding between 420,000 and 630,000 acre feet per year. By
implementing water efficiency, reuse and stormwater technologies, it is estimated that California
can augment their supply by between 10.8 million and 13.7 million acre feet of water per year,
which would better prepare communities for drought years and reduce overall water waste
(Pacific Institute, 2014).
Target population data
Though the long-term changes in drought events affects the majority of the western
United States, the population that has to most to gain and the most to lose from the current
drought are the water users of California. Currently, the success of conservation and planning
programs have been limited, but by better educating the population and targeting groups where
they can have the most positive impact, conservation and planning will be more likely to be
Age: 18-60 years-old

Gender: Male and female

Location: California Urban and Rural communities
Educational Level: High School Diploma and above
Ethnicity: Caucasian and Hispanic
Psychographic and Lifestyle Factors:
This demographic is quite broad, but given the severity of the current drought, a wider
demographic is necessary to target for future planning. These individuals are all connected to
this issue through their communities, work or location. Agricultural workers/owners,
recreationists, water and wildlife professionals as well as communities completely or partially
dependent on groundwater pumping are all affected by this issue now and have the potential to
contribute to conservation efforts in the future. This demographic has been chosen as the target
audience because it represents the largest portion of the permanent state population who is
similarly affected by the drought economically and socially (U.S. Census Bureau, 2014).
Within this large target audience it is important to tailor the overall goal of conservation
and improvement to fit the needs of the regional community. City dwellers, renters,
land/homeowners will have a different stake in the outcome and must be addressed via varied
media, education and outreach programs in order to see any real results. By targeting wider
population with specific messages that affect them individually, more effective conservation
efforts and education measures can be realized statewide, and more innovative systems can be
designed so all uses can continue to develop sustainably.
The economic situation of the target audience is relatively broad, but the group that is
most vulnerable from an economic/lifestyle standpoint is citizens living in lower income rural

communities with little to no access to alternative sources of water. However, as drought

conditions have worsened, the effects are being felt across a wider spectrum of economic and
social classes and these effects are likely to have a trickle-down effect. Despite the somewhat
skewed impact on socioeconomic classes, a broader, generalized population has the most
potential for impacting the issue and improving conservation, grassroots organizing and
appealing to policy-makers to make long-term, which is why they will be the primary target
audience of this campaign.
Californians as a whole have accepted the fact that the drought is a serious issue. A poll
conducted by the University of Southern California Dornsife/Los Angeles Times found that as of
June 2014, 89 percent of Californians consider the drought a major problem/crisis for the state.
Additionally, the majority of Californians supported conservation measures like water recycling,
storm water recapture, and seawater desalinization; and were opposed to lifting environmental
regulations designed to protect the environment such as fish and wildlife habitat protection in the
San Joaquin Valley (Boxall, 2014).
Despite the general consensus amongst Californians the drought is severe, the same
USC/LA Times poll found that only 16 percent of Californians report that they have been
personally affected by the drought to a major degree. Many more Californians are affected by
and impact the drought than realize it. Insufficient water consumption data and lack of consumer
awareness concerning their impact are amongst the most significant barriers to long-term
sustainability goals (Elkind, 2011). The USC/LA Times survey also indicated that amongst

California residents, while there was support of improved conservation efforts, when
implementing these improvements only 36% of people wanted to devote public funds to improve
storage and delivery of water (Boxall, 2014). Indeed, resistance to the idea of public funding for
projects to retrofit and improve the water supply system was found across the political spectrum.
Lack of funds and financial incentives to conserve are second only to awareness as barriers to
conservation. Financing for projects to implement conservation and promote sustainable
planning are essential to the long-term success of the project.
Available Resources
A significant source of information for the public has been the Associated Press.
Coverage of the drought has utilized information from the U.S. Drought Monitor and
meteorological agencies concerning the status of the drought; a significant portion of coverage
has focused on the human interest aspects of the drought in agricultural communities. Scientific
findings related to water use and efficiency, as well as information about the impact
infrastructure improvements and urban users can have on water availability has been
underrepresented in comparison. Many Californians access news from mass media and social
media outlets, but social media has been underutilized in terms of community outreach. Studies
have shown that social media is an increasing source of news for U.S. adults and can be an
important means for conducting community outreach (Anderson and Caumont 2014). Given
that a significant portion of the population receives their news via social media such as Facebook
and Twitter, social media has the potential to be utilized to present people with alternative
conservation methods and to update them on the true impacts of the drought.

Funding Sources
Due to the already steep financial toll of the current drought in California, a significant
amount of funding has been allocated for research into maximizing water efficiency to improve
conservation by local, state and federal agencies, as well as by private industry and research
universities. Part of this research is focusing on technology for improving transport, useefficiency, storm water capture and water reuse. Additional research and funding is focusing on
community outreach and education, teaching people how they can make a difference in their
communities by changing their daily water use patterns.

The Bureau of Reclamation partnered with the Natural Resource Conservation Service
has funded $6.3 million for projects improving agricultural water use efficiency (Office

of the Governor, 2015).

The federal government approved $50 million in general drought relief funds for
California, with $20 million set for the Central Valley Water project for drought

monitoring, endangered species protection, etc. (Office of the Governor, 2015).

The Governor of California, Jerry Brown signed in a $687 million drought relief package
to improved water system infrastructure and emergency drinking water supplies

throughout the state (CNRA, 2014).

The University of California system, California State Universities, and private
universities like Stanford all have research grant programs focused on the technological,
ecological and social components of the drought (UC-Davis 2015).

Due to the widespread impacts of the drought, partnerships at varying levels have
developed to address the causes as well as the ecological and socioeconomic aspects of drought.


University of California campuses have begun or expanded research on drought-resistant crops;

improved water efficiency irrigation technology; and drought survival outreach programs for
farmers, ranchers, landscapers and the general public. Partnered with the increased university
research is the California Water Institute, California Center for Urban Horticulture as well as
other associated agencies that are working to improve water use, efficiency and recycling in
urban centers. Federal agencies are also involved in monitoring, forecasting and modeling future
drought scenarios through the U.S. Drought Monitor and Portal, which provides up-to-date
information on drought statistics for scientists, media and the general public (University of
California Institutes for Water Resources, 2015).
The drought in California is a highly complex phenomenon, with many aspects affecting
its ecological, financial and social impact. One of the initial challenges was financing for water
systems improvements, agricultural innovation and urban efficiency improvements. As the
severity of the drought has intensified, more funding has become available and water efficiency
technology has improved. The biggest challenge now is engaging Californians in a dialogue and
educating them concerning their current and future impacts on the water system. The technology
and funding exist to increase public awareness of the water system issues in California and to
help citizens learn how the human impact of the drought can be reduced. Though the drought
can only be resolved with a return to normal precipitation, the effects of the drought on
agriculture, ecosystems, groundwater and water use can be strongly impacted by the human
dimension. For the remainder of this drought and for future ones, it is vital that the human
dimension be addressed so that California water and water in the western United States can be
managed sustainably.

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Angeles Times. Accessed on 7 March 2015 from
Anderson, M. and A. Caumont. 2014. How social media is reshaping news. Pew Research
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Borchers, J.W., V. Kretsinger Grabert, M. Carpenter, B. Dalgish, and D. Cannon. 2014. Land
Subsidence from Groundwater Use in California. Prepared by Luhdorff & Scalmanini Consulting
California Natural Resources Agency (CNRA). 2014. California Water Action Plan: Actions for
Reliability, Restoration, and Resilience. Final Draft. Sacramento, CA
Department of Water Resources (DWR). 2014a. Groundwater Basins with Potential Water
Shortages and Gaps in Groundwater Monitoring. Public Update for Drought Response.
Sacramento, CA.
Elkind, E. 2011. Conserving Urban Water in California to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions.
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Howitt, R.E., Medellin-Azuara, J., MacEwan, D., Lund, J.R. and Sumner, D.A. 2014. Economic
Analysis of the 2014 Drought for California Agriculture. Center for Watershed Sciences,
University of California, Davis, California. 20p. Accessed on 4 March 2015 from
Office of the Governor. 2015. Governor Brown Signs $1 Billion Emergency Drought Package.
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The Pacific Institute. 2014. The Untapped Potential of California's Water Supply: Efficiency,
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Nebraska-Lincoln. Accessed 2 March 2015 from
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Sacramento and San Joaquin River Basins from GRACE: Preliminary Updated Results for 20032013. UCCHM Water Advisory #1.