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

The majority of drinking water-related public health and safety impacts of drought are associated with small water systems that depend on unreliable water sources, often fractured rock groundwater.  Vulnerable systems tend to be located in lightly populated rural areas where opportunities for interconnection with another public system are limited, and the systems’ small ratepayer bases translate to limited financial resources and ability to afford capital improvements.  Experience shows that the same areas (even in water-rich pasts of the state) repeatedly experience problems during dry conditions — but as with the seasonal forecasting challenges — there is no simple answer to reducing their vulnerability.  Small water systems’ technical, managerial, and financial capacity challenges are explicitly acknowledged in the Safe Drinking Water Act regulations managed by SWRCB; long-term impacts of climate change represent an additional stressor.  Mitigating climate change impacts at this highly localized scale remains a challenge to be addressed; the emergency response approach employed for drought is not a sustainable answer over the long-term.

In the big picture, California is fortunate in having an extensive system of federal, state, and local water infrastructure and an institutional framework that facilitates drought preparedness and response.  Lessons learned from managing big droughts such as the present one are transferrable to managing expected impacts of climate change, and California has for some time been putting climate change mitigation and adaptation plans in place.  When – not if – the next drought happens, the measures used to respond to that drought will be moving us farther down the path of adapting to climate change.

Jeanine Jones serves as California Department of Water Resources’ Interstate Resources Manager and Deputy Drought Manager. 

cc image Robert Couse-Baker