Groundwater and agriculture: a comparison of managing scarcity and droughts in France and California

By Josselin Rouillard

Overview of French and Californian agricultural groundwater management

France and California face a common challenge of managing overdraft in intensively exploited aquifers. As of 2018, large areas of France and California have overexploited groundwater (see maps below). And both regions have passed landmark groundwater legislation, the Loi sur l’Eau et les Milieux Aquatiques (LEMA) of 2006 in France and the Groundwater Sustainable Management Act (SGMA) of 2014 in California. The LEMA and SGMA both aim to eliminate long-term imbalances between extraction and recharge in priority aquifers. They also both rely on multi-level governance where local stakeholders are given primary responsibilities to define and reach sustainable yield, but state action is possible if local managers do not implement adequate plans to reach sustainability.


Priority basins in France (left; in yellow are priority groundwater basins, in blue are priority surface water basins, in orange are both priority surface and groundwater basins) and California (right). Source: DREAL-DRIEE –Sandre, 2018; PPIC, 2018

France and California have very different physical realities and histories of managing water resources (see table below). With a predominantly Mediterranean climate, California has built a colossal water infrastructure, with 53 billion m3 of surface water storage capacity and large water transfer operations from wetter northern regions to drier southern regions. Few large water transfer schemes exist in France.

Early on, California established a permitting regime for surface water use in 1914, but it never extensively regulated groundwater extraction. The SGMA introduces for the first time local “Groundwater Sustainable Agencies” (GSA) which have extensive powers to implement more management actions in their Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSP), including for example local licensing schemes to regulate extraction.

Water extraction in France also was not strictly regulated historically. However, the 1992 Water Law included groundwater extraction in its national water licensing regime. Since then, the state has defined priority aquifers where it can enforce bans on drilling new wells. In addition, maximum extractable volume and allocations for each use category (public water supply, agriculture, industry, etc.) are to be defined. LEMA then requires the creation of “Organisme Unique de Gestion Collective” (OUGC) to allocate water among irrigators.

Summary comparison of French and Californian agricultural groundwater management

  France California
Key physical characteristics (annual)
Average annual rainfall 900 mm 530 mm
Total agricultural area 29 million ha 17 million ha
Total irrigated land 2 million ha 4 million ha
Average water extraction for irrigation 3 km3 35 km3
Average groundwater extraction for irrigation 1 km3 10 km3
Number of farm businesses 515 000 80 000
Key legislative and policy characteristics
Predominant water rights Water as national heritage commonly owned Individual water rights defined by common law and permits
Legislative target Good chemical and quantitative status Avoiding six undesirable results
Exemptions On the basis of socio-economic assessments Exemption on pre-2015 impacts
Key organisation OUGC (various legal status) GSA (public)
Key measures set in legislation Extraction licensing, extraction cap and user-based allocation GSAs have extensive powers including setting up caps and allocation system
Other key measures (existing and potential) Water efficiency, off-line reservoirs, crop change and higher value chains Water efficiency, land fallowing, conjunctive use, groundwater artificial recharge, water markets

The rest of this blog post reviews in more depth some similarities and differences in implementing LEMA and SGMA. Corentin Girard provides more background on French water and groundwater management.

Between preventing deterioration and restoring: comparing legislative aims and levels of ambition

In California, SGMA aims to avoid six “undesirable results” of bad groundwater management. Several of these objectives are similar to the European WFD objectives. However, SGMA includes an up-front exemption – authorities are not required to address impacts existing prior to 2015, when the legislation took effect. For example, this could mean that, where past extractions disconnected groundwater from surface water bodies before 2015, groundwater levels may not need to be restored to levels that secure environmental flows in rivers.

The LEMA is France’s implementing act under the European Union Water Framework Directive. The Water Framework Directive requires achieving good chemical and quantitative status for all groundwater bodies (see figure below). For aquifers connected to surface water bodies, European legislation additionally requires that imbalances in aquifers should not impair the ecological and chemical status of surface water bodies nor the integrity of groundwater dependent ecosystems. The Water Framework Directive sets an ambitious goal of restoration towards good status and a presumption towards reconnecting groundwater and surface water systems.

In reality, the Water Framework Directive allows for justified exemptions to good status. Reasons can include overriding public interest, technical feasibility, or disproportionate economic costs. Thus, it is legally possible to maintain low aquifer levels affecting surface water bodies and groundwater dependent ecosystems, but this should be justified on technical and socio-economic grounds.


The objectives of the European Union Water Framework Directive. Source: EEA, 2018

Accounting for ecosystem, society and economic needs in a variable and uncertain environment

Under SGMA, “minimum thresholds” are conditions for a specific parameter, such as aquifer levels, below which impacts become “unreasonable”. These minimum thresholds should not be breached even in dry years. However, “unreasonable” is not defined in the law and, unlike France, no uniform priority system among uses is set in the law. This means that what counts as acceptable impacts from low aquifer levels on e.g., fisheries, wetlands or drinking water supplies may differ between GSAs.

In France, LEMA focuses on structural, chronic water deficits. It requires setting annual maximum extractable volumes, which become the basis for groundwater allocations. Maximum extractable volumes are defined as the annual volume of water available for water uses without affecting minimum environmental flows at least four years out of five on average. Setting annual volumetric targets however does not help deal with imbalances from very dry years or multi-year droughts. So LEMA is complemented with parallel drought management rules. The risk of not reaching minimum aquifer levels or river flows in any one year leads to increasing restrictions on industrial and agricultural water extraction. Minimum aquifer levels and river flows are defined as levels which ensure sufficient water for environmental flows and “priority” uses (e.g., drinking water, national defence infrastructure, fire services).

Experience in France shows the reiterative nature of defining maximum extractable volumes and minimum aquifer levels and river flows. Basins initially lack full quantitative analysis of their groundwater and appropriate statistical and modelling tools. Existing studies are thus currently limited in scope – for example they do not account for impacts of climate change and do not always consider field-tested minimum biological flows.

Expecting these limitations, LEMA requires regular assessments and revisions of water extraction caps. A study led by the French Geological Surface compared the methods used in France. At EU level, technical groups involving Member States are in place, although most work to date has focused on building common methodological frameworks for quality parameters rather quantitative ones.

Between a rock and a hard place: the difficult implementation of reallocation policies

In California, stakeholders have historically resisted using strict groundwater (re)allocation policies to reach groundwater sustainability. Nevertheless, California has famous adjudication cases where water users under the supervision of a judge settled on hard extraction caps and individual allocations. Many stakeholders I met see SGMA as a structured approach to reach allocation agreements, the goal being to avoid costly adjudications while achieving similar outcomes. This is a challenging task as past adjudications have often taken decades to complete. Decisions relied on expensive technical assessments and legal analysis, which are currently absent in most groundwater basins.

The inclination in California to protect individual water rights challenges the possibility of any reallocation policy occurring outside courts. Legal experts have stressed the importance of accounting for the specific combination of existing rights that may exist in each groundwater basin when implementing SGMA.

In France, LEMA requires agricultural irrigation extraction caps. The quantities of water available for irrigated farming in any groundwater basin are shared among irrigators using allocation rules developed by OUGCs. The agricultural sector initially actively resisted the imposition of groundwater extraction caps, resulting in long delays in implementing the law. However, with the creation of OUGC controlled by farming organisations, allocations are now being made. Ongoing research on allocation rules show that farmers not only consider existing allocations and historical groundwater use when realising reallocations under LEMA but also issues of equity, economic efficiency and technical feasibility.  Past research has shown that allocation rules usually reflect different logic and philosophies of social justice.

To date, no allocation decisions in France have been challenged in court. One reason may be a legal basis that emphasizes the common ownership of water (res comunis ominium) and a longer history of groundwater co-management between stakeholders and the state. Nevertheless, it is clear that bargaining, negotiated compromise and pragmatism were necessary in implementing the first groundwater extraction limits. Future conflicts are however likely since further restrictions will be needed to fully align total allocations with extraction caps.

The broader policy mix: designing an innovative combination of supply and demand actions

Historically, California built a large surface water infrastructure network to deal with regional water shortages and drought. However, it is widely recognised that options for increasing supply are limited. Interviews with groundwater managers suggest that “conjunctive use” will be an important tool for SGMA implementation. Conjunctive use aims to optimise the patterns of extractions and storage between surface water and groundwater systems to account for periods of surplus and shortage in each water system. It also implies the wider use of artificial groundwater recharge techniques to restore groundwater stocks in times of surface water surplus and prepare for drought.

The second main tool mentioned during interviews are groundwater markets. As reaching groundwater sustainability will require significant agricultural transformations including land fallowing, some practitioners valued the potential of water markets to reduce costs by favouring higher value farming – a view supported by recent research focusing on the San Joaquim Valley. However, groundwater markets will require an initial allocation of water rights. As mentioned above, this will remain highly contentious.

Water markets do not exist in France and recent research has shown a general reluctance by agricultural users and stakeholders to implement water markets in France. Direct transfer of quotas between farmers is not permitted. Requests from irrigators for additional volume or for a new allocation are examined by the OUGC in charge of reallocating water. The intention is to encourage collective decisions and compromise on how to distribute available water equitably with the objective of securing competitive farming systems and benefiting rural communities at large.

Conjunctive use is not commonly practiced as it requires a level of planning and flexibility between surface water and groundwater pumping that does not yet exist in France. Much attention is on constructing additional surface water storage in the form of offline, medium size reservoirs built outside the riverbed to capture winter run-off and winter aquifer surplus. These projects face significant opposition due to their visual and potential environmental impact.

France has a long history of water saving programs in agriculture incentivised through European and regional subsidies. Measures focus on more efficient irrigation, changes in crop practice, alternative crop varieties, crop diversification and agri-environmental measures. Some schemes aim to plan coordinated changes across a large number of farms to achieve larger water savings across whole catchments and aquifers.

An important concept in French water and rural development policies is the notion of “territoire”, which can best be described as the “common living space” defined by a specific set of environmental, cultural and economic conditions. Water being a common good, its allocation is seen as a tool for the development of the “territoire”. As a result, new planning strategies, called “projet de territoire”, are currently designed in several regions across France. They aim to enhance the coherence between water availability, allocation decisions, crop production systems and agricultural-food value chains.

Some concluding remarks

Groundwater managers in France and California face challenges in transforming complex systems towards sustainability with incomplete or contradictory knowledge, involving many actors and with potentially large economic consequences. The delays in implementing LEMA and ongoing resistance in France show the difficulty of engaging the agricultural sector in these reforms. In such “wicked” situations, an adaptive approach is warranted, which encourages nested experimentation and multiple cycles of implementation and revisions.

To achieve an openness to change, a culture of learning needs to be nurtured amongst GSAs and their constituents. The initial stages of GSP preparation will be fundamental to create a sense of common ownership of the problem, and establish a planning process that encourages negotiated compromises. The ambitious deadline for developing GSPs (e.g. by 2020 in critically overdraft basins) might eventually be the biggest barrier to that learning process if GSAs are tempted to rush through the initial trust-building stages.

The strong focus on local solutions in California provides a favourable ground for experimentation. However, this also runs the risk of very disparate interpretations of SGMA provisions. When implementing the Water Framework Directive, the European Union developed a range of early guidance documents to avoid unfair competition between European countries. In California, early guidance or a common framework may be needed, for example on what counts as “undesirable” and how to set “minimum thresholds”, to guarantee a minimum level playing field between GSAs.

Sustainability cannot be reached with a single instrument, but will require multiple strategies and approaches. France offers an original case of collective groundwater management focused on negotiated, user-driven reallocation decisions. California provides cases of costly but successful adjudicated basins as well as a variety of solutions optimising supply actions and economic instruments. Rather than antagonistic, these different strategies are complementary in reaching sustainable groundwater management. Future work could make more structured comparisons and encourage additional knowledge exchange to inform implementation in both regions.


Dr. Josselin Rouillard works for the French Geological Survey (brgm) on groundwater allocation and agricultural irrigation systems. He is an associate of Ecologic Institute on European water and agriculture policy. More information on his current research project can be found here.


This post arises from the author’s observations and discussions in California funded by the University of Montpellier through the MUSE program and the European Union H2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie Action under Grant Agreement no. 750553. I thank the many Californian groundwater practitioners, policy-makers and academics who kindly shared their thoughts and experiences on implementing SGMA. 

Further Readings

Arnaud L. (2016) -Estimation des volumes prélevables dans les aquifères à nappe libre: retour d’expériences sur les méthodes utilisées, identification des problèmes rencontrés, recommandations. Rapport final, BRGM/RP-64615-FR. 107 pages, 42ill., 1 annexe.

Babbitt, C., Dooley, DM., Hall, M., Moss, RM, Orth, DL., Sawyers, GW. (2018). Groundwater pumping allocations under California’s sustainable groundwater management Act. Considerations for groundwater sustainability agencies. Environment Defense Fund-NewCurrent Water and Land, LLC.

Babbitt, C., Gibson, K., Sellers, S., Brozović, N., Saracino, A., Hayden, A., Hall, M., Zellmer, S. (2018). The future of groundwater management in California: lessons in sustainable management from across the West. Environmental Defense Fund and Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute at the University of Nebraska.

Blomquist, William. Dividing the waters: governing groundwater in Southern California. ICS Press Institute for Contemporary Studies, 1992.

European Commission:

EEA (European Environment Agency) 2018. European Waters. Assessment of status and pressures 2018. EEA Report 7/2018. ISSN 1977-8449.

Figureau, A.-G., M. Montginoul, and J.-D. Rinaudo (2015), “Policy instruments for decentralized management of agricultural groundwater abstraction: A participatory evaluation,” Ecological Economics, Volume 119, November 2015, Pages 147-157

Hanak, E., Escriva-Bou, A., Gray, B., Green, S., Harter, T., Jezdimirovic, J., Lund, J., Medellín-Azuara, J. Moyle, P., Seavy, N. (2019). Water and the Future of the San Joaquin Valley. Public Policy Institute of California, California.

Langridge, R., Brown, A., Rudestam, K., Conrad, E. (2016). An evaluation of California’s adjudicated groundwater basins.

Nelson, R. (2011). Uncommon innovation: developments in groundwater management planning in California. Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University.

Rinaudo JD., Moreau C., Garin P. (2016) Social Justice and Groundwater Allocation in Agriculture: A French Case Study. In: Jakeman A.J., Barreteau O., Hunt R.J., Rinaudo JD., Ross A. (eds) Integrated Groundwater Management. Springer

Rouillard, J. (2019). The role of sectoral policies to restore groundwater balance: a study of European agricultural policies and their impact on irrigation water demand in France. In Sustainable Groundwater Management : a comparative analysis of French and Australian policies and implications to other countries, Rinaudo, JD., Holley, C., Montginoul, M., Barnett, S. Springer, in preparation.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Collapse of Water Exports – Los Angeles, 1914

by Jay Lund


Collapse of Los Angeles aqueduct pipeline through Antelope Valley from a major flood in February, 1914 (3-months after the aqueduct’s official opening). LADWP historic photo archives.

“In February, 1914, the rainfall in the Mojave Desert region exceeded by nearly fifty per cent in three days the average annual precipitation.

Where the steel siphon crosses Antelope valley at the point of greatest depression, an arroyo or run-off wash indicated that fifteen feet was the extreme width of the flood stream, and the pipe was carried over the wash on concrete piers set just outside the high water lines. The February rain, however, was of the sort known as a cloud-burst, and the flood widened the wash to fifty feet, carried away the concrete piers, and the pipe sagged and broke at a circular seam. The water in the pipe escaped rapidly through the break under a head of 200 feet, and the steel pipe collapsed like an emptied fire hose for nearly two miles of its length. In some places the top of the pipe was forced in by atmospheric pressure to within a few inches of the bottom. The pipe is ten feet in diameter, and the plates are 1/4 and 5/16 of an inch thick. Many engineers pronounced the collapsed pipe a total loss, and advised that it be taken apart, the plates re-rolled and the siphon rebuilt.

The damage was repaired, however, by the simple expedient of turning the water on after the break was mended, relying on the pressure to restore the pipe to circular form. The hydraulic pressure, under gradually increasing head, restored the pipe to its original shape without breaking any of the joints or shearing the rivets, and a month after the collapse the siphon was as good as new. The total cost of repairing the siphon was only $3,000. It would have cost about $250,000 to take it apart and rebuild it” (LABPSC 1916).


LADWP historic photo archives.

Water management and policy has always faced challenges, even unexpected ones following great technical triumphs. California’s water problems have never been easy.

But sometimes challenges require only creative solutions based on fundamental insights and a willingness, occasionally driven by desperation, to venture forth and adapt.


Jay Lund is the Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California – Davis.  This is a re-posting from May 2016.

Further reading

Complete report on construction of the Los Angeles aqueduct, Los Angeles Board of Public Service Commissioners, Los Angeles, CA 1916. (pp. 20-21)

Water and Power Associates. Construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct

LADWP historic photo archives

YouTube – Construction of the Owens Valley Project

Posted in California Water | Tagged | 5 Comments

Portfolio Solutions for Water Supply

by Jay Lund

“Water problems in the western United States, when viewed from afar, can seem tantalizingly easy to solve: all we need to do is turn off the fountains at the Bellagio, stop selling hay to China, ban golf, cut down the almond trees, and kill all the lawyers.” – David Owen (2017), Where the Water Goes: Life and Death Along the Colorado River.

Given California’s long dry seasons and tremendous variability in annual rainfall, its water supplies for cities and agriculture are surprisingly reliable and inexpensive.  This reliability has not been easy to achieve and requires constant attention (Lund et al, 2018).  In recent decades this reliability has been due to portfolio approaches employed by California’s most reliable water supply systems.

Water supply portfolios are usually considered somewhat differently than portfolios for flood management.  Water supply portfolio activities, summarized in the table below, are usually divided into water supply activities (which deliver water to users) and activities which manage or lessen demands for water use (including water conservation and water allocation actions).  However, since the time of Frontinus (97 AD), it is clear that successful water supply systems also requires cooperation from many individuals and groups who manage supplies and demands, so today’s taxonomy adds a category of incentives that encourage people involved in a water system to work well together.  (Others will propose different, perhaps better, taxonomies.)

water supply portfolio

Water supplies almost always begin with precipitation in some form.  Rarely, management actions grab additional precipitation by cloud seeding or almost never fog capture.  There is some discussion of modifying watershed to enhance runoff and make more water available to supply. These are prohibitively expensive in almost all practical applications.  Precipitation is the predominant source of water for streams and aquifers, and precipitation varies greatly seasonally and across years.  Even fossil water in aquifers originated from past precipitation.  Wastewater is increasingly thought of as an additional source of water (for reuse).

Water from these sources is rarely at the time and place when people want to use water, so it must be conveyed or stored for use, or to improve the reliability of supplies for water use.  Water is heavy and bulky, so conveyance and storage involve costs and inconvenience.  Many storage and conveyance approaches are available, and they often operate as an integrated system.

Water quality is also vitally important for many uses, so the protection of source water quality is always a concern.  Water quality is often improved with treatment, making unsuitable water suitable for additional uses.  Many forms and contexts of water treatment are available, and has become increasingly prominent.  Some American cities  now treat wastewater for potable reuse.

Water supply systems have many components which must operate well together.  Substantial improvements in costs and reliability often can be achieved by more effective operations.  In California, operation increasingly includes conjunctive use of surface and ground waters.

Water demands also can be managed.  Ideally, water use is reduced and shifted from times and places when the costs of providing additional water are not worth the value of the additional water use.  Usually we seek to reduce or shift water use from less convenient or expensive times and locations.  This is often done with water efficiency actions which modify technology (such as low-flush toilets) to provide equivalent service with less use of water.  At other times, we seek to modify behavior to change water use, such as by shortening showers or watering landscaping less.  Demand management activities can be varied for permanent, hourly, seasonal, or ad hoc reductions in water use to make water deliveries more reliable and economical.  Being able to conserve additional water during drought is a useful asset.  In principle, demand management can and should apply to all demands for water supply.

Everyone is part of and relies on a water supply system and most water systems function only if many people and interests work together.  Customers must pay water bills, maintain their plumbing, not steal or over-use water, maintain water quality, and reduce use more during droughts or other shortages.  Local water utilities and their contractors must safely, effectively and efficiently operate distribution infrastructure.  A host of regional water wholesalers (e.g., MWDSC, SWP, and CVP in California), water sellers, and a variety of service, material, equipment, and operating contractors are essential to most water systems in California.  This need for many people and organizations to work well together requires suitable mutual expectations, inspections, standards, and enforcement of approximate compliance with mutual expectations.  Any water system will collapse without effective incentives to work well together, enforced mutually and by governmental powers.

Portfolio approaches that artfully combine these many elements cannot eliminate conflicts among water users and conflicts across water management purposes (such as among water supply, flood, and ecosystem purposes).  Indeed, portfolio solutions will sometimes cause some new conflicts and trade-offs.  However, water supply portfolio solutions should reduce overall water supply problems and provide greater reliability at less cost and conflict than would likely occur otherwise.  Indeed, adopting portfolio solutions for all major water management purposes would likely reduce conflicts across purposes, as portfolio solutions usually are far more flexible and adaptable.

Portfolio solutions are more complex than simple and less adaptable water supply solutions in the past.  These more complex solutions require more complex institutional arrangements and analysis, using computer modeling, to provide assurances that components will work well together over a range of conditions.  The additional noisiness and controversy from these analysis and negotiations belies the typically greater reliability of portfolio management – it is often the sound of relative transparency and people paying attention.

Effective water supply portfolios also vary with time and conditions.  California’s San Joaquin Valley is going through painful portfolio changes arising from the state-mandated end of groundwater overdraft, increases in environmental flows, and the expansion of profitable tree crops (Hanak et al. 2019).

One last point is the role of portfolios within each sector for making agreements to improve performance across water management purposes.  An example is the agreement for operating Folsom Reservoir outside Sacramento, California for both water supply and flood control.  The dam operator, the US Bureau of Reclamation – mostly concerned with water supply, contracts with a local flood control authority (the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency) to lower the reservoir more in winter to reduce flood risk, and is compensated for water deliveries lost in years when the lower winter storage results in less water supply being available.

There is a common saying in California water these days that, “There is no silver bullet, only silver buckshot.”  But effective water management is unlikely to result from a shotgun blast of disintegrated actions.

Further Reading

Frontinus, Sextus Julius (97 AD), The Water Supply of the City of Rome.  An 1899 translation by Clemens Herschel was published by the New England Water Works Association (1973)

Ellen Hanak, Alvar Escriva-Bou, Brian Gray, Sarge Green, Thomas Harter, Jelena Jezdimirovic, Jay Lund, Josué Medellín-Azuara, Peter Moyle, and Nathaniel Seavy (2019,” Water and the Future of the San Joaquin Valley, PPIC, San Francisco, CA, February.

Lund, J. (2019), “Portfolio Solutions for Water – Flood Management,” 3 March,

Lund, J.R., J. Medellin-Azuara, J. Durand, and K. Stone, “Lessons from California’s 2012-2016 Drought,” J. of Water Resources Planning and Management, Vol 144, No. 10, October 2018.

Maven’s Notebook, More reliable water supplies for California: Building a diverse regional water supply portfolio.

White, Gilbert (1966), Alternatives in Water Management, Publication 1408, National Academy of Sciences – National Research Council, Washington, DC, 52pp.

Jay Lund is a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Davis.


Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Portfolio Solutions for Water – Flood Management

by Jay Lund

The tweet below, shows slight (but still frightening) levee overtopping this week on Cache Creek, just north of Woodland, California.  It also illustrates the combined operations of flood preparation and response, with a simultaneous floodplain evacuation order.  Integrating a range of preparations and responses have made the Sacramento Valley much safer from floods.

One often hears, “If only we did X, we would solve this problem.”  Alas, effective solutions are rarely so simple or reliable.  Most robust solutions for problems involve a diverse and complementary portfolio of actions, developed over time.  When a set of diverse actions are carefully crafted to work together, they often provide more effective, adaptable, and reliable performance, at less expense that a single solution.

The Sacramento Valley’s flood management system is a good example where a portfolio of actions has greatly reduced flood damages and deaths, with relatively little management expense and attention in a highly flood-prone region.  This case also illustrates how the many individual flood management options presented in the table can be assembled into a diversified cost-effective strategy involving the many local, state, and federal parties concerned with floods.

flood portfolio

Portfolio strategies usually include actions which work in different ways over different times.  Flood management portfolios usually include actions that prevent flooding (such as levees) complemented by actions that reduce the need for more expensive flood prevention (such as flood evacuations).  Actions which protect areas from flood waters (often structural actions) are distinguished from actions that reduce vulnerability to damage and death if flooding occurs.  Levees, bypasses, and reservoirs are all designed and operated to support each other in the Sacramento Valley to reduce the extent of flooding.  Floodplain land management and flood warnings and evacuations have greatly reduced the property and people exposed to flooding.

Because most floods occur and pass quickly, most flood management is in preparing for floods and flood recovery, rather than in response during actual floods.  As with fire-fighting, elections, and war, flood management time is more than 99% preparation and recovery and less than 1% actions during flood events.  Pre-flood preparations to contain floods (with levees, reservoirs, and bypasses), reduce flood damage potential (with evacuations, building codes, insurance, and floodplain zoning), and prepare for rapid flood operations and evacuations (with education, warnings, and training) are crucial.  Making and coordinating investments, training, and education are all prominent before floods, making urgent flood operations more effective (and less panicked).  Post-flood response also can reduce flood damages and help prepare for the next flood.  There is always a next flood.

Portfolio solutions require overcoming some challenges, however.  Because portfolio solutions involve a range of actions usually controlled by different authorities and groups, they require more social and political organization than single-action silver-bullet solutions.  This can take time, motivation, and leadership to bring together.  But such diversification of responsibility for implementing portfolio can help spread expenses and provide useful perspectives of attention to details and effectiveness.  In flood management, local residents and land owners, local governments, regional governments, and state and federal agencies all specialize in different elements of regional flood management.  This specialization helps lower costs, increase attention to detail, and diversify political support.  This can lead to a mutually-reinforcing ecosystem of institutions that are collectively more effective at attending the problem and innovating than would a single larger bureaucracy.

It took decades for California’s Sacramento Valley to build its current flood management portfolio.  Even so, some flood problems remain.  Small towns and some rural industries remain vulnerable – and there is always vulnerability to bigger floods and infrastructure failures.  There will always be residual flood risks, as flood solutions are never perfect or complete.

Flood problems also change as the economy, population, social expectations, and now climate change.  We now see floodplains and flood bypasses are closely linked to California’s environmental solutions, bringing new objectives in our flood discussions. Portfolio solutions can often better incrementally adapt to change because of their supporting diversified institutional network and operational flexibility.

Successes with water problems (and other areas) often comes from developing or evolving portfolio solutions.  An integrated range of institutions supports this management, mixing the advantages of centralized and decentralized governance and finance to make more effective and adaptable solutions at less expense.  No single person or institution can usually solve such problems.

A series of blog post essays will explore the use and development of portfolio solutions for major water problems.  Successes and challenges will be discussed, as well as the problem of coordinating portfolios of actions across problems – such as managing a common water infrastructure for floods, water supply, and ecosystems – which traditionally have separate solution portfolios.

Further Reading

California Department of Water Resources, Central Valley Flood Protection Plan,

Gilbert F. White (1937), Notes on Flood Protection and Land-Use Planning, Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 3:3, 57-61, DOI: 10.1080/01944363708978728

Independent Forensic Team (2018). “Independent Forensic Team Report: Oroville Dam Spillway Incident”. January 5, (2018).

Jeffres, C.A.; Opperman, J.J.; Moyle, P.B. (2008), Ephemeral floodplain habitats provide best growth conditions for juvenile Chinook salmon in a California river. Environ. Biol. Fishes, 83, 449–458.

Kelley, R. (1989), Battling the Inland Sea; University of California Press: Berkeley, CA, USA.

Lund, J.R. (2012), “Flood Management in California,” Water, Vol. 4, pp. 157-169; doi:10.3390/w4010157.

Jay Lund is a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Davis.


Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Tough Fish in a Harsh Place: Red Hills Roach

by Peter B. Moyle


Red Hills roach. The upper fish is about 60 mm (2.5 inches) total length. Photo by P. Moyle

Red Hills Roach are small (adults are 60-70 mm in total length) bronzy minnows that live in a challenging environment. They survive in a few small streams that start as seeps in a hot dry landscape, the serpentine outcrops of the Red Hills, at about 1200 ft in elevation (Tuolumne County).  The streams flow through a hot landscape in summer, only lightly shaded, and a pool with more than a foot of water is regarded as deep.  The water of the streams is likely laced with magnesium, iron, and other minerals leached from the serpentine deposits.  Because the land through which the streams flow is of low value, in the past it had been mined, heavily grazed, and run-over by off-road vehicles. The region is now managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) as the Red Hills Recreation Management Area.  Of the 11 varieties of fish that are labeled as roach (Hesperoleucus), the Red Hills roach has the most restricted distribution, so is the most vulnerable to extinction (see California water blog for February 10, 2019; Baumsteiger and Moyle 2019).

My guess is that the Red Hills roach has survived mainly because BLM designated part of their habitat as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern, which was established to protect rare species of plants that mainly grow on serpentine soils. The plants include the purple-flowered California verbena (Verbena californica) that, like the roach, is found only the Red Hills, in association with seeps that feed the stream. By protecting the native plants, the managers also protected the only species of vertebrate that is endemic to a serpentine-dominated landscape: the Red Hills Roach, Hesperoleucus symmetricus serpentinus.  This is a classic endangered species, a small, ordinary-looking fish with a peculiar common name, for a fish, which is followed by a very long, if somewhat poetic, scientific name (try saying it out loud a few times). It is perhaps appropriate that this unusual California fish is associated with the official state rock, serpentine.


Red Hills Roach Habitat, July 15, 2010. Photo by P. Moyle.

For a good description of the Red Hills geology, flora, and fauna see the Wikipedia account. To get a good idea of the habitat of the Red Hills roach watch the video that was filmed and narrated in 2015 by Kit Tyler (5 minutes):

Also read Amber Manfree’s blog account of the search for Red Hills roach (and other roaches) during the last drought.


The Red Hills roach is currently listed as a Fish Species of Special Concern by the California Department of Fish and Game based on its limited distribution (1-2 km of small stream) and small population (<500 adults).  The CDFW account also provides a description of threats to the fish and well as recommended management actions.

Now that the Red Hills roach has a formal scientific name, it should be listed as both a state and federal threatened species, with the extra protection such designations provide.  Moyle et al (2011) rated its status as of High Concern (status score of 2.1 on a scale of 1.0-5.0), while it was rated as “critically vulnerable” to extinction because of climate change by Moyle et al. (2013).

Map of RHR

Map of the Six-bit Gulch watershed, which drains the Red Hills.  The Red Hills roach is found primarily in the upper half of the gulch.  The lower reaches and headwaters are typically dry in summer.  Map by Amber Manfree.

Further reading

Baumsteiger, J. and P. B. Moyle. 2019. A reappraisal of the California Roach/Hitch (Cypriniformes, Cyprinidae, Hesperoleucus/Lavinia) species complex. Zootaxa 4543 (2): 2221-240.  (available as open-access download).

Moyle, P.B., J. V. E. Katz and R. M. Quiñones.  2011. Rapid decline of California’s native inland fishes: a status assessment.  Biological Conservation 144: 2414-2423.

Moyle, P.B., J. D. Kiernan, P. K. Crain, and R. M. Quiñones. 2013. Climate change vulnerability of native and alien freshwater fishes of California: a systematic assessment approach. PLoS One.

Moyle, P.B., R. M. Quiñones, J.V.E. Katz, and J. Weaver. 2015.  Fish Species of Special Concern in California.  3rd edition.  Sacramento: California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Peter B. Moyle is a UC Davis Professor Emeritus of fish biology and an associate director of the Center for Watershed Sciences.


Left: typical habitat, 2014, photo by M. Ogaz.; Right: Jacob Katz, Red Hills Roach habitat, 2010,photo by P. Moyle.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The sociology of science in environmental management: Reflections on “Fields and Streams”

WaterwaysRestoration-Tools.jpgby Jay Lund

Most readers of this blog are water management wonks who toil in the bureaucracies and professions of water management, the water-industrial complex, so to speak.  We mostly work on technical issues and internal and inter-organizational rules and controversies.  Despite the daily “firefighting” foci of our activities, almost everyone understands something of the organizational and multi-organizational nature of water and environmental management.  But few actively study the larger organizational and methodological sociology of our work.

Some excellent sociology, history, geography, and political science exists on water institutions (such as Maass 1950; Tarr 1984; Walker and Williams 1984; Kelley 1989; Blomquist 1992; Lund 2015).  But there is much less insightful writing on the sociology of the professions and methodological trends (and fads) which often dominate environmental activities and institutions.

The 2013 book Fields and Streams, by Rebecca Lave, is a worthwhile and thought-provoking work on the field of stream restoration, its development as a profession and implementation by agencies and NGOs.  The book particularly traces the development of the “Natural Channel Design” (NCD) approach to stream restoration.  This NCD approach had largely non-academic origins and came to dominate stream restoration in practice, with a set of internally consistent and coherent definitions, procedures, and methods that are sometimes effective in the field.  The approach, its origins, and its mixed results have fed controversy between its largely consulting and agency staff proponents and opposing academic and government researchers.

The book describes the history of the NCD approach and how its growth was driven by a growing regulation-driven market for pragmatic approaches for stream restoration, the ability of non-academic professionals to develop and market coherent pragmatic advice (even when flawed), and the difficulties of more scholarly researchers producing and delivering practical advice.

The book’s story and findings are interesting in themselves, but lead me to some broader reflections on the development and application of technical ideas and knowledge by government agencies with mandated missions:

  1. Agencies which lack strong organized engagement with science can be attracted to whatever seems like conveniently organized science, seems legitimate, makes sense, and is not too expensive. The author’s wonderful history of fin-de-millennium stream restoration seems to mirror recent environmental flow regulation controversies, where a real problem is met with less than coherent academic and professional advice, so agencies and advocates take more convenient advice from earnest environmental professionals and business-seeking firms.
  2. Academics are not the sole source of wisdom and methods used in practice. Practicing engineers and professionals know this well.  Nevertheless, we live in times when academic work can be influential, and sometimes is.
  3. Academic work is more often useful for large practical problems if organized externally. For stream restoration, academics were largely unsuccessful at organizing themselves to shape practice.  Academic ideas tend to be used more in practice when agencies or firms focused on a problem organize and sponsor academic involvement (such as the Manhattan Project of the 1940s, Cold War military applications, some past Federal and state water infrastructure development, water and wastewater treatment technologies under US EPA leadership and regulations, university cooperative extension, underwriters’ laboratories, and the internet).  Indeed, modern engineering academia arose in the 1700s and 1800s from the French State’s need for an academic enterprise to educate its national and regional road and waterway staffs.
  4. So, government agencies that want effective science-based management often must lead in organizing technical and scientific input and insights. This can take many forms, but requires fundamental sustained agency commitment to organized problem solving.
  5. In a world of changing problems and expectations, such as increased regulatory and market demand for stream restoration, it is a persistent struggle for agencies to move from doing what sounds good to doing what works. If institutions are not organized to develop, test, and improve approaches and methods scientifically, they will expend their resources on what sounds like it might work.

Political economic structure always shapes environmental management and environmental professions, even without capitalism and neo-liberalism.  Ancient China’s deforestation (mentioned by Mencius), Mesopotamian soil salinization, invasive species spread by Polynesian and European seafarers, the Soviet Union’s Aral Sea, and India’s air pollution, are a few examples of the human-induced degradation globally throughout history, unrelated to liberalism.  Excellent scholarship on political-economic effects on modern environmental management and professions includes histories of flood control (Kelley 1989) and sewers (Tarr 1984).

The effects of political economy on environmental management is broad and eternal.  Even without neoliberalism, there has always been profit in being a capable courtier to kings.

To me, the great value of Fields and Streams is in highlighting the importance of unfortunately rare sociological studies of the development and use of technical knowledge in complex multi-institution problems.  We mostly blunder through sociological thinking on environmental management.  The book highlights the costs of this blundering in terms of environmental efficacy, distraction and waste of human time and resources, and expansions of controversy for already-hard environmental problems.

Many of our water and environmental management and regulation systems need some fundamental rethinking to more effectively achieve sometimes conflicting objectives in changing times.  This book’s partial anatomy of stream restoration’s water-industrial complex is a thought-provoking start on this difficult and important aspect of contemporary environmental and ecosystem management.

Further reading

Lave, R. (2013), Fields and Streams: Stream Restoration, Neoliberalism, and the Future of Environmental Science, University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA, 170 pp.

Two useful reviews of Lave, R. (2013), Fields and Streams:,

Blomquist, W. (1992), Dividing the Waters: Governing Groundwater in Southern California. San Francisco: ICS Press.

Kelley, Robert (1989), Battling the Inland Sea: Floods, Public Policy, and the Sacramento Valley, University of California Press, Berkley, CA.

Lund, J.R., “Integrating social and physical sciences in water management,” Water Resources Research, Volume 51, Issue 8, Pages 5905–5918, August 2015.

Maass (1950), Muddy Waters, The Army Engineers and the Nation’s Rivers, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Tarr, Joel A. (1984), “Water and Wastes: A Retrospective Assessment of Wastewater Technology in the U.S., 1800-1932,” Technology and Culture, Vol. 25, No. 2 (April), pp. 226-263.

Walker, R.A. and M.J. Williams (1982), “Water from Power: Water Supply and Regional Growth in the Santa Clara Valley,” Economic Geography, Vol. 58, No. 2 (April), pp. 95-119.

Jay Lund is a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California Davis, who has never recovered from his exciting graduate school foray as a social geographer.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Roaches of California: Hidden Biodiversity in a Native Minnow

by Peter B. Moyle



If you inspect small streams in northern California, including those that seem too small or warm for any fish, you will often see minnows swimming in the clear water. Chances are you are seeing a very distinctive native Californian, usually called California roach.  This fish is a complex of species that occurs as far north as Oregon tributaries to Goose Lake and is widespread in tributaries to the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, as well as in rivers along the coast from the Eel River to Monterey.

“California Roach” is the name originally given to some minnows collected in 1854 from the San Joaquin River.  When the great Stanford ichthyologists David Starr Jordan and Barton Warren Evermann put these fish into their grand monograph Fishes of North and Middle America, they decided it looked like the roach (Rutilus rutilus), a common minnow in England and Europe.  They then gave it the scientific name Rutilus symmetricus.  While the relationship to European roach was dismissed by John O. Snyder in 1913, the unfortunate common name of “roach” stuck.  Snyder placed California Roach in its own genus, Hesperoleucus, and divided it into six species, based on body shape and counts of fin rays and scales (see Table).  His species were also based on the isolation of their home waters from other watersheds, which would prevent interbreeding.

Because roaches are small inconspicuous fishes, little formal attention was paid to their taxonomy (or status).  By the 1950s, there seemed to be a general consensus that Snyder’s species were at best subspecies and the California roach was back to one species.  This was reflected in the classification presented in my 2002 book, Inland Fishes of California, although the species was divided into eight subspecies.   Then, Andres Aquilar and Joe Jones (2009) looked at populations that were part of this ‘species complex’ using mitochondrial and nuclear DNA. Their analysis indicated that two of Snyder’s species, northern roach and Gualala roach, were strongly supported as ‘good’ species.  The other six subspecies I listed in 2002 were at least supported as distinct genetic units by their analysis.

To clarify the relationships among the species more firmly, new techniques in genomics were brought to play.  This effort was led by Jason Baumsteiger, a postdoctoral scholar at the Center for Watershed Sciences and in the genomics laboratory of Mike Miller.  He performed restriction-site associated DNA (RAD) sequencing on roach samples collected throughout California to discover and genotype thousands of single nucleotide polymorphism (SNPs) (see Baumsteiger et al.  2017). This detailed examination of the genomes of roaches from throughout their range allowed determination of how much each population had diverged from other populations.  Among other things, it allowed for ‘rules’ to determine which populations were species, subspecies, or distinct population segments.

Distinct population segment (DPS) designations are based on the use of DPS designations under the national Endangered Species Act; they are isolated populations that are distinctive, but not quite different enough so to be called species or subspecies. DPS designations are widely used for determining whether or not salmon and steelhead populations are eligible for protection under the ESA.

The application of genomics to the taxonomic relationships of roach populations (Baumsteiger and Moyle 2019) resulted in our recognition of five species, four subspecies, and 5 distinct population segments (Table 1). The five species each have distinctive, interesting features.

The California roach is the most widespread species, historically found in streams throughout the Central Valley, with many opportunities for adaptation to local conditions, such as those found in the Kaweah River (hence the Kaweah roach DPS). It appears to be losing these locally-adapted populations rapidly, however, as they become increasingly isolated by dams and damage to streams, and by invasions of their small stream refuges by green sunfish and other non-native predators.

The Clear Lake roach is a bit of mystery because it a perfect hybrid between coastal roach and California roach.  This fits the geologic history of the region, which has been alternately connected to the Russian River and to the Sacramento River. Presumably representatives from both watersheds made it into the Clear Lake basin at times and hybridized.  The hybrid was apparently superior to either parent species in its ability to persist in streams tributary to Clear Lake.  Today, the Clear Lake roach is more isolated than ever, because the lake is full of non-native predatory fishes.

Hybridization also has led to the development of new species in the northern roach.  This roach inhabits small streams and springs of the upper Pit River basin and looks like other roach species.  So we were surprised when the genomics study showed that about 80% of the genome was like that of the hitch, a related species in a different genus (Lavinia exilicauda).  This seems to have been from an ancient hybridization, perhaps when Sacramento Valley fishes invaded the Pit River region thousands of years ago. Curiously, we also found that the roach-like fish abundant in Hetch-Hetchy Reservoir, on the upper Tuolumne River, also are hitch-roach hybrids even though they were introduced into the reservoir by persons unknown.

The southern coastal roach is also known to hybridize with hitch, where the two species occur together naturally, but these hybrids seem unimportant to the populations of both species. The presence of subspecies and DPSs in the coastal roach distribution reflects the isolation of coastal watersheds from one another with enough connections in the past to keep populations from differentiating enough to be labeled species.  This also makes the Gualala roach a bit of an anomaly, given that watersheds on both sides of the Gualala River contain coastal roach.   The northern coastal roach also shows how rapidly a species can spread when introduced into new watershed, in this case the Eel River. These roach, probably introduced in the 1960s, now occupy most of the accessible habitat in the Eel, one of California’s largest watersheds; the genomic study indicates that they came from fish in the Russian River roach DPS, just to the south, so were pre-adapted for conditions in the Eel River.

This study of small fishes demonstrates again the high endemism in fishes that are adapted to the special, often harsh, conditions in California streams.  This surprising diversity is another example of what makes California special and needing of a well-supported, state-wide conservation strategy. The roach species complex is also good example of hidden biodiversity revealed by new genetic techniques.  Modern genomics can support conventional taxonomic methods to designate species, subspecies, and DPSs and should improve our ability to conserve California’s richness of fishes.


Northern roach. Photo by Stewart Reid


Common name Scientific name Snyder 1913 Moyle 2002 Notes
California Roach H. symmetricus H. symmetricus H. symmetricus Name applied to all roach by Moyle 2002 and others
Red Hills Roach H. s. serpentinus H. s. subsp. Serpentine endemic; Tuolumne County
Central California Roach H. s. symmetricus H. symmetricus H. s. symmetricus Tributaries to Central Valley
Kaweah  Roach H. s. symmetricus H. s. symmetricus DPS, Kaweah River
Clear Lake Roach H. symmetricus x venustus H. s. subsp. Hybrid that behaves like a full species; tribs. to Clear Lake
Coastal Roach H. venustus Originally multiple species/subspecies
Northern Coastal  Roach H. venustus navarroensis Introduced into Eel River.
Russian River Roach H. venustus navarroensis Lumped with Clear Lake Roach DPS, introduced into Eel River
Navarro Roach H. venustus navarroensis H. navarroensis H. s. navarroensis DPS, Navarro R.
Southern Coastal Roach H. venustus subditus
Tomales Roach H. venustus subditus H. s. subsp. DPS, Tomales Bay streams
Monterey Roach H. venustus subditus H. subditus H. s. subditus DPS, Salinas-Pajaro watersheds
Northern Roach H. mitrulus H. mitrulus H. s. mitrulus Pit River; originated as hybrid with Hitch.
Gualala Roach H. parvipinnis H. parvipinnis H. s.  parvipinnis Gualala River

Further readings

Baumsteiger, J. and P. B. Moyle. 2019. A reappraisal of the California Roach/Hitch (Cypriniformes, Cyprinidae, Hesperoleucus/Lavinia) species complex. Zootaxa 4543 (2): 2221-240.  (available as open-access download)

Baumsteiger, J., P. B. Moyle, A. Aguilar, S. M. O’Rourke, and M. R. Miller. 2017. Genomics clarifies taxonomic boundaries in a difficult species complex. PLoS ONE 12(12): e0189417. (available as open access download)

Moyle, P.B. 2002. Inland Fishes of California.  University of California Press, Berkeley.

Peter B. Moyle is a UC Davis Professor Emeritus of fish biology and an associate director of the Center for Watershed Sciences.


Classic California roach habitat.  Dye Creek, Tehama County, July 2014

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

15 Years of the San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Sciences – Open Access Journal

By Lisa Howardpjh_delta_farming-0250_700x400.jpg-copy

originally published January 21, 2019

When the peer-reviewed journal San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science launched fifteen years ago, the editors chose what was then a somewhat new model of scientific publication known as “open access.”

At that time, most academic journal publishers kept their content behind pay walls, accessible only with expensive subscriptions that were mostly paid by institutions like universities.

The sequestered academic content was a big problem when it came to research about the San Francisco Bay-Delta watershed, which includes not only the San Francisco Bay, but all the waters that feed into it — a combined area of more than 75,000 square miles.

The Bay-Delta watershed provides critical habitat for plants and animals, drinking water for more than 25 million Californians, irrigation for thousands of square miles of agriculture, as well as recreation facilities and a transportation route for deep-water shipping.

“Universities had access to the scientific journals, but the agencies and stakeholders involved in managing California’s water didn’t,” said Samuel Luoma, a research ecologist with the John Muir Institute of the Environment (Muir Institute) at UC Davis and editor-in-chief of SFEWS.

In 2000, Luoma was the lead scientist for the CALFED Bay-Delta Program. He headed a committee that was looking for ways to improve collaboration and access to research about water and watershed issues in Northern California. The committee consisted of representatives from federal and state agencies, water users and universities.

“The idea that came out of the committee was to create a peer-reviewed publication that was authoritative and objective, and that everyone interested in California water could read, and could write for, at no cost,” said Luoma.

To help turn the idea into reality, Luoma teamed up with James Quinn at UC Davis, Randy Brown and Lauren Muscatine at the California Department of Water Resources, and Fred Nichols at the U.S. Geological Survey. Brown and Nichols would go on to become the first co-editors and Muscatine would become the managing editor.

A common model of open-source publishing is to have authors pay to have their works published. To make sure their new journal would be free to both read and write for, they secured funding from the State of California, through what is now the Delta Stewardship Council’s Delta Science Program.

A partnership with the Muir Institute, which generates policy-relevant research to solve environment challenges, established a home for the journal at UC Davis. And with the California Digital Library’s eScholarship Publishing Group, they had a publishing platform.

SFEWS launched in October 2003, the same month another open-access journal made its debut, Public Library of Science or PLOS.


Samuel Luoma, editor-in-chief, and Lauren Muscatine, managing editor, along the Embarcadero in San Francisco. (Lisa Howard/UC Davis)

The science of California’s complex and contentious water issues

The first issues of SFEWS featured topics familiar to anyone who follows California water: tidal wetlands restoration; sediment; mercury in the food chain; and the impact of wetland restoration on native fishes like chinook salmon, steelhead rainbow trout and Delta smelt.

Later issues featured research on groundwater, drought, atmospheric rivers, Traditional Ecological Knowledge for restoration, floodplain management, zooplankton distribution, climate change, and ecosystems along the Sacramento River, just to name a few. Early papers on Delta smelt, climate change, and threats to the Delta remain among the most cited. A recent piece tackled the misperception that river water flowing through the Delta to San Francisco Bay and on to the Pacific Ocean is “wasted.”

“Some of the biggest battles over California water — whether farmers get the water or the environment gets the water or the cities get the water — is because we don’t have enough water,” said Luoma. “And the biggest battles are centered around scientific issues. How much water can we divert for agriculture and the cities? How much for our endangered species?”

To answer those questions, policymakers and agency scientists rely on research published in SFEWS.

“The rules about when you can divert water, and when you can’t, are structured around what we know about Delta smelt and salmon,” said Luoma. “Fundamental reviews and papers about Delta smelt and salmon have been — and will continue to be — published in the journal. The journal has had a lot of influence on many of the policies that were created and continue to be disputed and re-created.”

“Our journal’s regional focus offers authors a chance to publish research that may uncover novel solutions to help solve some of the most significant problems that California policymakers are addressing today,” said Muscatine. “Some of these solutions, if proven successful, may be applicable to similar ecological systems around the world.”

Making UC research available to a wider audience

Fifteen years on, the impact of open-access publishing has also matured. When SFEWS launched, there were about 1,800 open-access journals. Now there are more than 12,000. PLOS ONE has gone on to become the largest multidisciplinary peer-reviewed journal in the world.

Although the research in SFEWS is focused on a specific niche — the San Francisco Estuary and its watershed — the impact of the science is massive.

Since the journal’s launch in 2003, a total of 49 issues have been published, averaging 20 to 25 papers per year, and resulting in a total of 266,372 requests for access to articles. It continues to be jointly published by the Muir Institute and the Delta Stewardship Council.

SFEWS authors are continuing to tackle California’s water management and environmental issues from all sides. Their efforts represent studies from over 110 academic disciplines and 350 institutions,” said Muscatine.

Articles from the journal have been picked up by news outlets like Mother Jones, Wired, and Stanford News, making high-quality, policy-focused research widely discoverable beyond the open-access environment.

“The mission and vision of San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science has been forward-looking from the beginning,” said Ben Houlton, director of the Muir Institute. “The research addresses California’s complex water issues in a completely non-partisan way, which is why it has been such a tremendous asset over the past fifteen years. And with the uncertainty about how climate change will affect California’s watersheds, it will continue to be a valuable asset for years to come,” said Houlton.


More Reading!

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Droughts and progress – Lessons from California’s 2012-2016 Drought

By Jay Lund, Josue Medellin, John Durand, and Kathleen Stone


Lake Cachuma in Southern California, February 2017

Droughts and floods have always tested water management, driven water systems improvements, and helped water organizations and users maintain focus and discipline.  California’s 2012-2016 drought and the very wet 2017 water year were such tests.  Historically, major droughts accelerate innovation and are career tests for agency and political leaders.  We recently summarized major lessons from California’s 2012-2016 drought (Lund et al. 2018). (Wet year failures from 2017 brought additional lessons.)

California accommodated the most recent droughts and floods fairly well – with some important exceptions.  It is worthwhile to show how such a large drought could have such small impacts on most Californians, and to draw lessons for how all sectors might reduce drought impacts in the next inevitable drought.  Contrasts for four sectors are particularly poignant.  Future droughts and floods are expected to be greater and perhaps more frequent, so recent relative success should not encourage complacency.

Managed well and poorly

California’s large urban systems fared well in the drought.  This contrasted with previous major droughts in 1976-77 and 1988-92, when major water systems were forced into mandatory water conservation.  Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara (with relatively isolated water supply systems) were the only major cities which imposed mandatory use reductions due to local water supply shortages, for one year each of the 5-year drought.  Despite sizable population growth since previous droughts, major urban areas were well prepared for this drought due to increasing water conservation (substantially driven by more conserving plumbing standards) and major improvements in infrastructure and regional cooperation (expanded groundwater and surface storage, wastewater reuse in southern California, drought plans, and water trades and markets) since previous major droughts.  In 2015, mandatory statewide reduction in urban water use by 25%, to prepare for a longer drought, led to negligible regional economic impacts because it was accommodated mostly by reducing urban landscape irrigation (normally about 50% of statewide annual urban water use).

Most agricultural areas largely continued to prosper during the drought, thanks largely


Fallowed field in southern Central Valley, 2015

to groundwater access, good national and global commodity prices, and flexible operations and water trades.  However, agricultural production and management was challenged widely and some farming areas found themselves unprepared and suffered considerable losses.  Again, preparation was key to minimizing losses.  The prominent importance of groundwater led to state regulation of groundwater in 2014 to help ensure adequate sustainable groundwater supplies for more profitable perennial crops, which are more expensive to fallow in dry years.

Rural drinking water supplies faced sometimes severe challenges, largely due to additional agricultural pumping from deeper, larger-capacity wells.  These small systems, which are more vulnerable under many conditions, remain one of California’s most challenging, but more solvable water problems.  A modest amount of regular funding, well organized and applied, along with better sustained groundwater levels, would address the worst of this problem for future droughts.

Ecosystems saw the greatest drought impacts, which are still being felt in terms of recent wildfires.  Perhaps the biggest effects of the drought are for forests and wildfires statewide.  Several recent large wildfires, made worse by the drought and climate warming, have been locally devastating and had a statewide economic impact many times that of the major 5-year drought.  Aquatic ecosystems in much of the state, already weakened by longstanding multiple stressors and unrecovered from previous droughts, were also harmed.  Environmental flows were sometimes reduced in favor of economic activities.  Waterfowl were less harmed in the drought due to effective cooperation among private, NGO, state, and federal refuge managers to adaptively manage and supply wetlands for migratory birds, an example of effective drought management for an ecosystem.  Again, for all these sectors, reductions of future drought impacts will require organization and investment in preparation well beyond that done before the drought.

Lessons from California’s 2012-2016 drought

  1. Drought tests improve management in well-run water systems. Each drought in California’s history has led to improvements in water management, often responding to long-term problems and opportunities. The recent drought highlighted the dependence of California’s agriculture on groundwater in dry periods, and brought substantial legislation for more effective local groundwater management. Incremental improvements in water accounting, urban water conservation, and other areas were accelerated by the drought. Diligent reflection and discussion from the recent drought should lead to further improvements, particularly for the less prepared, less organized areas of managing ecosystems, rural water supplies, and environmental and water right regulations. The reports for the Oroville spillway failures in 2017 and the 1976-77 drought are superb examples.
  2. California’s diverse economic structure and deep global connections greatly reduce drought’s economic impacts. California and other modern global economies depend less on abundant water supplies than in the past. High values for California’s major export crops greatly reduced the impacts of fallowing to about 6% of the least-profitable irrigated land during the drought. Despite important local problems, the drought had little effect on California’s statewide economy. Urban areas, supporting most people and economic activity, had already developed diversified water supply and conservation portfolios successfully from previous droughts, with some additional improvements.
  3. Globally, California is more robust to drought and climate change from its organized water systems, irrigated agriculture with diversified supplies, substantial groundwater, and adaptability with water networks and markets. California’s extensive diverse water infrastructure allowed more than 70% of water supplies lost to drought to be replaced by pumped groundwater for agriculture and shifting of surface water supplies, requiring greater groundwater recharge in the long term. California’s irrigation infrastructure and network of reservoirs and canals mute drought effects, and are particularly effective for protecting the most valuable crops and economic activities. With long-term reductions in the least-profitable irrigated area, this system can be sustainable.
  4. Ecosystems were the sector most affected by the drought, given the weak condition of many native species after decades of losses of habitat and water and the growing abundance of invasive species. Forests are particularly vulnerable and difficult to protect from droughts. With each drought, humans become better at weathering drought, but effective institutions and funding are lacking to improve ecosystem management and preparation for drought. Dedicated environmental water rights and restoration and migration programs can help support ecosystems. Such actions are needed to break the cycle accumulating drought impacts to ecosystems.
  5. Small rural water systems are especially vulnerable to drought. Small systems often struggle in normal years, lack economies of scale, typically have only a single vulnerable water source, and commonly lack sufficient organization and finance. Accumulating overdraft, accelerated during drought, brings a growing number of dry domestic and community wells in rural areas.
  6. Every drought is different, and motivates further improvements. Each drought is hydrologically unique and occurs under different historical, economic, ecosystem, and climate conditions. But all droughts provide opportunities and incentives to improve water management for changing conditions and priorities. In well-managed systems, each drought is greeted with improved preparations from previous droughts.

Major water agencies should reflect on and document lessons from the last drought to help prepare for the future droughts.  Such documents are important for policy discussions and as background for water managers and policy-makers entering a new drought.  Periodic regional drought “dry run” exercises also would help prepare agencies for droughts, and particularly help agencies to work well together during drought (and at other times) – much like annual flood and earthquake exercises.

Every generation needs at least one threatening drought to motivate water system improvements and collaborations among the many agencies and interests involved in water management and use.  Droughts are unavoidable, but their effects are much less if we organize, prepare, and respond appropriately.

Further reading

Department of Water Resources (DWR) (1978), The 1976-1977 California Drought – A Review, California Department of Water Resources, Sacramento, CA, 239 pp.

Hanak, E., J. Mount, C. Chappelle, J. Lund, J. Medellín-Azuara, P. Moyle, and N. Seavy,  What If California’s Drought Continues?, 20 pp., PPIC Water Policy Center, San Francisco, CA, August 2015.

Independent Forensic Team, Independent Forensic Team Report – Oroville Dam Spillway Incident, 5 January 2018.

Lund, J.R., J. Medellin-Azuara, J. Durand, and K. Stone, “Lessons from California’s 2012-2016 Drought,” Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management, October 2018. (open access)

Medellín-Azuara, J., D. MacEwan, R.E. Howitt, G. Koruakos, E.C. Dogrul, C.F. Brush, T.N. Kadir, T. Harter, F. Melton, J.R. Lund,” Hydro-economic analysis of groundwater pumping for California’s Central Valley irrigated agriculture,” Hydrogeology Journal, Vol. 23, Issue 6, pp 1205-1216, 2015.

Jay Lund is the Director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. Josue Medellin is an acting Associate Professor of Engineering at UC Merced.  John Durand is a professional researcher and Kathleen Stone is a graduate student at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.


Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Improving public perception of water reuse

test-the-process-with-logosBy Kahui Lim and Hannah Safford

Water reuse is becoming more important to water security in arid regions like California. The California Recycled Water Policy calls for an increase of 1 million acre-feet of reused water per year by 2020 and 2 million by 2030.  Assembly Bill (AB) 574 mandates that California establish a legislative framework for direct potable reuse (DPR)—where highly treated wastewater is recycled for drinking and other potable purposes—by 2023.

Technology already exists to treat reused water to levels meeting or exceeding health standards. But adequate technical capacity is not sufficient. Water reuse can trigger revulsion, especially when water is reused for drinking or other potable purposes. This note explores outreach and engagement strategies to overcome the “yuck factor” and achieve public support for water reuse.

Case studies

Los Angeles East Valley Water Recycling Project

In 1995, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) began developing the East Valley Water Recycling Project. This $55 million water-reclamation project was intended to help “drought-proof” Los Angeles by using treated wastewater for groundwater recharge, irrigation, and other purposes. The project secured necessary approvals and construction was completed in 2000.

But as East Valley was about to come on-line, it was derailed by a public-relations disaster. Problems began when the Los Angeles Daily News published an article about East Valley with the headline “Tapping Toilet Water.” The concept of sewage being used for drinking sparked public outcry.

At the same time, an open Los Angeles mayoral contest was beginning. Several candidates seized on opposition to East Valley as campaign fodder, pledging to put a stop to “toilet-to-tap.” City attorney James Hahn was ultimately elected and made good on this promise. Hahn shut down East Valley and required LADWP to sever the pipeline bringing recycled water to the Hansen Spreading Grounds.

That public outcry could undermine a finished, $55 million project illustrates the importance of robust public engagement. As Gerald Silver, President of the Homeowners of Encino, said of LADWP’s poor outreach around East Valley: “Reaching out means reaching out in a way that people will understand.”


The severed pipeline at the Hansen Spreading Grounds is a reminder of public power and the importance of outreach.

Water reuse in Orange County

The Orange County Water District (OCWD) provides a successful example of water reuse. In 2008, OCWD began operating the Groundwater Replenishment System (GWRS), treating treated more than 70 million gallons per day of wastewater to potable standards. The product was then sent to replenish local aquifers used for drinking water.

The project has been widely recognized for its emphasis on education and engagement as well as engineering. A full decade before beginning construction, OCWD launched a public relations campaign to overcome negative perceptions of water reuse and secure broad support. The campaign employed various outreach strategies, including facility tours, television ads, briefings for elected officials, and partnerships with community groups and community leaders. It worked; the GWRS faced no substantial opposition.  Media coverage of the project was generally positive, including headlines like “How California is Learning to Love Drinking Recycled Water” and “Magic in a Bottle”.

OCWD continues to creatively prioritize public relations as the GWRS expands. In 2017, OCWD secured special permission to bottle its recycled water for consumption. The bottles were distributed at tasting events throughout Southern California. In 2018, OCWD gained substantial media attention by earning a Guinness World Record for the most recycled water produced in 24 hours.

 Research insights

Research confirms that outreach and engagement can increase acceptance of water reuse. Providing consumers with information on water reuse is a good first step. A survey commissioned by the water-technology company Xylem Inc. found that 89% of California residents are more accepting of reused water after learning more about the treatment process. A similar survey from the Victor Valley region of Southern California found that educating respondents about water reuse increased support for water reuse projects by 8 percent and decreased opposition by 7 percent.

Research also suggests ways to tailor messaging around water reuse. Public reaction to water reuse is often influenced by “affect heuristic,” a psychological principle that refers to people’s tendency to instinctively react to a stimulus based on prior experiences with similar or related things. Affect heuristic makes it difficult for people to overcome disgust associated with wastewater and accept scientific evidence that water reuse is safe. Numerous strategies exist to combat this heuristic. The Xylem survey found that referring to reused water as “purified” water garners stronger support for its use as an additional local water supply than referring to it as “recycled” or “reclaimed” water. Other studies have found that emphasizing the low risks of water reuse increases support more than emphasizing the benefits. Finally, messaging should avoid terms with negative connotations (such as “sewage” or “waste”) and incorporate terms with positive connotations (such as “clean” and “sustainable”).

In addition, it is helpful to provide opportunities for people to experience water reuse firsthand. Pure Water San Diego and the Silicon Valley Advanced Water Purification Center are just two of the multiple water recycling projects that, like OCWD, offer regular public tours. Tours allow participants to sample finished water: a powerful strategy for increasing consumer acceptance. As Marta Lugo, a public information representative of the Santa Clara Valley Water District (SCVWD, which oversees the Silicon Valley project), noted: “If people see their neighbors taking a taste, or their friends and peers, they get over a psychological barrier—it becomes normalized.” Indeed, the SCVWD found that taking a tour more than doubled the percentage of people strongly in favor of potable wastewater reuse.

Key takeaways

1: Engage proactively

The LADWP case study shows that it is difficult to recover once a negative narrative has taken hold. Hence outreach should begin early, during project planning. Options include working with community organizations, the media, and local leaders to explain how and why key decisions were made; sending brochures to utility customers; and hosting informational booths at public events.

2: Message carefully

How information is delivered is as important as the content itself. Messages should be delivered in clear, non-technical language, and should emphasize positive aspects and low risks of recycled water. It is also useful to articulate how water recycling can mitigate local water-supply issues.

3: Encourage public involvement

Broad public involvement in creates a sense of ownership that increases support. Project managers should consider recruiting local and stakeholders for advisory councils, providing opportunities for public comment, and offering tours and open houses.


Kahui Lim ( and Hannah Safford ( are graduate students of environmental engineering at UC Davis. This blog was prepared for the course “ECI 289: Synergies Between Environmental Engineering and Water Policy” and originally published as a policy brief through the UC Davis Policy Institute for Energy, Environment, and the Economy. [Click here to download this blog as a PDF]

 Further reading






Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments