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January 17, 2014
Viewpoints: California droughts precipitate innovation

low_flows.JPG(Jan. 17 - By Jay Lund, Special to The Bee)

The 2013 calendar year was the driest on record for much of California. There is almost no snow in the Sierra Nevada or Trinity Mountains, and the forecast for January is dry. We are currently in a drought, though with three months left of our normally wet season, it remains possible that 2014 will not become a drought year.

California's history is punctuated by droughts. Each drought reveals problems and becomes an opportunity to focus on improving water management and expanding smaller-scale innovations. For example:

1924: Irrigation systems. This and earlier droughts caused severe losses for farmers and herders, mainly in the Sacramento Valley. Most of these farmers had come from wetter climates back East. By 1924, declining outflows and growing upstream diversions from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers brought sea salt well into the Delta, to water intakes of cities and farms. These events confirmed California's need for large reservoir, conveyance and irrigation systems to support the growth of agriculture and cities.

1928-34: Major water projects. Basin irrigation systems existed in much of California by this time. But this six-year drought accelerated design and construction of the Central Valley Project and served as the design standard for most of California's water system until 1976.

1976-77: Water conservation. Although most of today's water infrastructure had been built, this driest two-year period on record still had severe impacts. In response, cities, particularly in the Bay Area, found they could reduce water use by as much as 40 percent during a drought. Permanent water conservation and long-term conservation plans became established for urban areas.

1988-92: Conjunctive water use and water marketing. This drought raised the importance of managing surface water and groundwater in conjunction rather than separately. It also spurred development of water markets to reduce the economic effects of drought, by allowing owners of higher-valued water to buy water from willing owners of lower-valued water.

2007-09: Confronting problems of the Delta. Though this three-year drought was relatively mild, it cost Southern California in reduced river and Delta water supplies. About 21,000 agricultural jobs were lost - 16,000 from the drought alone and another 5,000 from Delta export restrictions. This drought, along with federal court judgments on the Delta, brought attention to the problems of the Delta and groundwater in California.

In 2009, the Legislature passed a major package of reforms for managing the Delta, including a 20 percent urban water conservation target.

If the current drought persists, here are some areas to watch:

Streamlining water market transfers. Difficulties of Delta exports and less-than-dire water conditions have mired state regulation and management of water markets. A drought will bring attention to this important approach to increasing flexibility for drought and water management.

A 2014 water bond. State bond funding can both help and disrupt long-term water management. Better long-term financing would support more effective government actions. Perhaps one more water bond can help smooth this transition.

Strategic decisions on the Delta. Strategic decision-making is hard with thousands of stakeholders and interests. But this year seems promising for a range of Delta and related issues. A drought will focus attention on big issues and potential changes.

Advances in groundwater quantification, rights and management. California relies mostly on groundwater for surviving long droughts. Droughts make groundwater's importance more obvious and worsen its decline. State action might become preferable to litigation.

Broadening flood protection. Effective programs and financing for extending Central Valley flood protection beyond major cities remain elusive. A drought could lead to improvements in flood management and policy as part of a package of water management reforms.

Organizing systematic management of aquatic ecosystems. Managing lake, stream and estuarine ecosystems to protect native species such as salmon is perhaps California's least coordinated water management activity. Everyone has roles, but no one is really in charge, and there is no substantial funding for it anyway. Droughts make this problem more urgent and apparent.

These are all difficult issues, where most of the easy and effective solutions have already been implemented. Real solutions will involve trade-offs and political will. In water policy, aridity often focuses attention.

Every drought springs innovations.

Jay Lund, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, is director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis.