Guest Commentary: Responding to Drought in California and How it Helps Inform Climate Change Adaptation

2014 will go down as the driest year on record for California, calling for creative solutions to meet the state’s water needs

 Interstate Resources Manager & Deputy Drought Manager, California Department of Water Resources

Jeanine Jones, Interstate Resources Manager & Deputy Drought Manager, California Department of Water Resources

California is experiencing its third consecutive dry year; water year 2014 will end up as one the driest in the state’s historical record.  Statewide reservoir storage is approaching 60 percent of the historical average and groundwater levels in some intensively used basins are more than 100 feet below their previous historical levels. Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. has taken a number of actions to respond to these severe drought conditions, including: issuing a summer 2013 executive order regarding expediting state review of local water transfer proposals, naming a Drought Task Force in late 2013, and issuing two statewide drought emergency proclamations this year.  Emergency drought funding legislation has also been enacted.  Working under the emergency proclamations, state agencies have been charged with monitoring drought conditions and taking actions to mitigate impacts where possible.  As the Governor said in January: “We can’t make it rain, but we can be much better prepared for the terrible consequences that California’s drought now threatens…”.

In terms of timing of impacts, climate models generally show very pronounced impacts – such as loss of half or more of Sierra Nevada snowpack – by the end of the century, with notable impacts being observed by mid-century.

Actions in the emergency proclamations focus on immediate responses specific to this year’s hydrologic conditions.  For example, tasks directly related to water management or fishery protection include: State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) water rights administration and enforcement, evaluation by the Department of the need to install temporary emergency barriers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to protect water quality and water supply, and evaluation by the Department of Fish and Wildlife and Fish and Game Commission of the need for restricting fishing in certain areas.  Other tasks in the emergency proclamations include assisting local communities faced with critical drinking water shortages, preparing for elevated wildfire risks, and addressing near-term data and information needs that support drought impact monitoring and decision-making.  This latter work includes evaluating the status of statewide groundwater conditions and improving seasonal precipitation forecasting.