The Renewable Resources Report

What if California’s Drought Continues?

What if California’s Drought Continues is one of three articles featured in Volume 29 No. 4 of the Renewable Resources Journal (RRJ), available now as a free download. California is currently in its fourth year of a severe drought. These past four years have been the driest since record-keeping began in the late 1800s. This drought has also been exceptionally warm, amplifying the effects of drought by reducing snowpack, decreasing soil moisture, stressing natural vegetation, increasing irrigation demands, and raising water temperatures. California is increasingly likely to experience this type of drought with simultaneous low flows and high temperatures as the region’s climate warms. Originally published by the Public Policy Institute of California, this article discusses what impacts this drought has already had, what to expect if the drought continues, and what steps the state is taking to build drought resilience.

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Impacts and Adaptations So Far

California relies on water stores in surface reservoirs and groundwater basins in times of drought. Because of an unusually wet 2011, the beginning of the drought found surface reservoirs relatively full. However, four years in, these reserves are now significantly depleted. State and local water projects have reduced water deliveries to agricultural and urban customers, and hydropower generation is at its lowest level since 1977. The drought is also testing the efficacy of the state’s surface water allocation system – it has revealed significant information gaps for administering surface water rights in a timely and transparent manner. [See Volume 29 No. 2 of RRJ for a history of water management and governance in the west].

Water users rely on groundwater stores and surface water reservoirs in times of drought. While groundwater typically supplies about 33% of total farm and urban water use, it has supplied over 50% since 2014. This is exacerbating the symptoms of chronic overdraft, which causes sinking lands (subsidence), higher pumping costs, drying up of wells, and drying of some rivers and wetlands fed by groundwater. Concern over unsustainable pumping finally led to the enactment of a statewide Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in September 2014.

Likely impacts and management challenges if the drought continues. Click to enlarge.

Table 1. Likely impacts and management challenges if the drought continues. Click to enlarge.



Although the original report highlights cities, farms, and rural communities in addition to ecosystems, the excerpt included in this issue of RRJ focuses on ecosystem impacts. Put succinctly, California’s ecosystems are in crisis. The most acute and severe impacts of the drought have been on the state’s freshwater habitats and forested lands. Over a century of water and land management practices have increased ecosystem vulnerability by undermining their natural capacity to handle droughts.


California is both home to diverse populations of various waterbirds and an essential stop on the Pacific Flyway for migrating birds. The drought has dramatically reduced the amount of waterbird habitat, already depleted by decades of land development that has drained most natural wetlands. Water deliveries to refuges were cut by 25% or more, thereby reducing food supplies and increasing risk of disease. So far, management actions and late spring rains have helped prevent major bird population declines. However, risks of high bird mortality increase as the drought persists. A continuation of current management efforts in light of persistent drought would require funds for purchasing farm water and dedication of water supplies to refuges, which may become more costly over time.

Native Fishes

Of the 129 species of freshwater fish that inhabit California, two-thirds are endemic to the state. One hundred of these species are listed as threatened or endangered, or are on their way to being listed. Many are highly vulnerable to the low flows and higher water temperatures of the current drought. Survey counts for estuarine fish are at or near record lows. Management actions have included drought-stressor monitoring, rescue operations, and halting some water use that was depleting surface flows in several key salmon and steelhead streams. However, the State Water Board has also relaxed environmental flow standards on 35 occasions to accommodate urban and farm users. Beyond the emergency management actions listed above, the state has no comprehensive plan to address the potential for extinctions. Near-term options for improving habitat in the wild are limited. For many fish species, rapid and substantial investment of resources in developing plans for protecting species and rebuilding populations would be prudent.

Forests and Wildfires

The conifer and hardwood forests that cover about a quarter of California are naturally wildfire-prone, and a century of fire suppression has increased the likelihood of large, devastating fires. [See “Causes and Cost of Wildfires” for more information]. Hotter temperatures, moisture deficits, and insect infestations are killing trees rapidly, leading to severe wildfires that pose threats to public safety, infrastructure, water supply, air quality, and wildlife. Since this drought began, the state has experienced two of the three largest fires in recorded history. California faces significant risk of more devastating fires if the drought persists. Fire suppression is the only real near-term option. Management options to reduce severe fire risk will be of limited value in the short term – fuel reduction efforts require sustained efforts over large areas for decades.


Drought Resilience

What’s Working

  • Diversified water portfolios
  • Regional infrastructure
  • Coordinated emergency response

Works in Progress

  • Mandatory conservation
  • Water pricing
  • Rural community supplies
  • Groundwater management
  • Water trading
  • Waterbird management

Difficult Work Ahead

  • Improving the curtailment process
  • Modernizing water information
  • Managing wildfires
  • Managing surface water trade-offs
  • Avoiding extinctions of native fish
  • Building environmental resilience

To read in more detail, download Volume 29 No. 4 of the Renewable Resources Journal. RNRF will be holding a Congress on Sustaining Western Water on December 1-2, 2015. For more information, visit


Related Posts:

RNRF Report on Sustaining Western Water

Drought: A Growing Challenge for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Managers

Water and Growth in the West

Closing the Water Demand-Supply Gap in Arizona?

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