Federal Disaster Assistance to California

By Ryan Miller and Nicholas Pinter

Following a major flood or other natural disaster, the US federal government provides disaster assistance to individuals and local and state jurisdictions to help them recover. Over the past ~20 years, these federal payments have totaled nearly $150 billion (in 2020 dollars), including over $20 billion for recovery from Hurricane Katrina and $15 billion from Hurricane Sandy. We analyzed 20 years of federal data to assess patterns of FEMA disaster assistance, focusing on aid to California, peer states, and FEMA assistance across the US.

A principle conclusion is that California has received less federal disaster assistance on a per-capita basis than most peer states and less than United States averages for all disaster types. The imbalance is especially pronounced for flood-related events, and reinforces previous findings that California has relied less on federal flood funding, including National Flood Insurance Policy claims, than most states over the past 20-30 years. In addition, delay times in receiving FEMA Public Assistance funds showed wide variations, with delays ranging from a few days up to almost 16 years.


We analyzed 20 years of information about three types of assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), including: Public Assistance (PA) to repair public infrastructure, Individual Assistance (IA) provided to individual victims of disasters, and Hazard Mitigation Assistance (HMA) spent to reduce future losses. FEMA also underwrites flood insurance payments from the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), a type of post-disaster funding analyzed separately (see Pinter, N., R. Hui, K. Schaefer, and D. Conrad, Dec. 14, 2016. California, Flood Risk, and the National Flood Insurance Program. California Water Blog: https://californiawaterblog.com/2016/12/14/california-flood-risk-and-the-national-flood-insurance-program/.) In addition, other federal agencies and programs, for example the Small Business Administration, also sometimes invest in post-disaster recovery.

Patterns in Disaster Aid

Public Assistance (PA) payments nationwide (Figure 1a) vary each year, but show increasing numbers of “Billion Dollar Disasters” in recent years (NOAA, 2022; https://www.ncei.noaa.gov/access/billions/). Most PA payouts nationwide (66.1%) were for hurricanes, with peaks in 2006 (after Hurricane Katrina) and 2018 (after Harvey). Non-hurricane flooding is the second-largest category of PA funding (20.4%), followed by fires (8.6%; reconstruction in the wake of the September 11 Terror Attacks were coded as ‘Fire’, explaining the spike in in 2002-2003). Payouts for all other disaster types represented less than five percent of the total.

Figure 1a: Public Assistance payouts nationally, 2000-2019 (2020 Dollars).
Figure 1b: Public Assistance payouts to California jurisdictions, 2000-2019 (2020 Dollars).

PA allocations to California (Figure 1b) differ from the national pattern. Most PA projects in California in recent years have been for fire, with the largest expenditures in 2018, following the Tubbs, Carr, and Camp fires. In other years, total PA spending in California was in the low tens of millions of dollars.

California also draws far less in PA funds per capita than most other U.S. states – particularly for flooding (Table 1; Figure 2). A handful of small Mountain West and Midwestern states received over $1,000 per capita in PA during 2000-2019, while several states received less than $10 per capita. The average per-capita PA expenditure nationwide was over $251, more than 23x higher than $10.90 per-capita in California.

The simplest explanation for state-to-state differences in federal disaster relief allocations is that disasters are rare and somewhat random, and that 20 years might not do justice to long-term disaster occurrence. However, the data (e.g., Figure 3) hint at political factors at work. The five most populous states – California, Texas, New York, Florida, and Pennsylvania — each received less than $50 per capita in PA during 2000-2019, compared to over $250 per capita nationwide. Other states such as Idaho, Wyoming, and New Hampshire received over $1,000 per capita over the same period. Perhaps influential politicians from small states steer PA funding to the less populous states they serve.

Figure 2. Flood-related Public Assistance expenditures per capita in the United States (2020 Dollars).
Figure 3. Flood-related Public Assistance expenditures per capita versus total population.

Patterns in California

In California, the counties receiving the most Public Assistance per capita (Table 2; Figure 4) were predominantly small and rural and mostly in Northern California, while those receiving the least PA per capita were all in the San Joaquin Valley.

Figure 4. Cumulative per-capita flood-related Public Assistance payments in California (inflation-adjusted to 2020).

Payment Times

FEMA’s PA database includes the date that federal funds were obligated to local jurisdictions and the date funds were fully received (Table 3-4). Lag times varied from just 2-3 days for some projects up to 5,800 days (almost 16 years). Average PA payment times in California are about the same as elsewhere in the US, for both flood and non-flood related disaster declarations. California had a greater share of moderate delays than elsewhere in the country: nearly 40% of the funds disbursed in California had payment delays of 1-2 years, compared to 22% nationwide (Figure 6). Conversely, California had fewer extreme delays, with less than 1% of lag times >3 years, comparing to nearly 20% nationwide.

Over the past 20 years, the time to process PA funding has increased (Figure 5). Larger states have longer delays than small states. Puerto Rico and Louisiana had the longest delays, probably from the complicated assistance projects following Hurricanes Maria and Katrina.

Figure 5. Mean days elapsed before payment of federal funds, including funds received in California (blue line) and throughout the United States (grey line).
Figure 6. Distribution of all disbursed PA funds (2000-2020; not inflation-adjusted) according to payment delay.


The imbalance between what California has received over the past 20 years from FEMA disaster assistance programs relative to other states mirrors imbalances documented in California’s claims from the National Flood Insurance Program (Pinter et al., 2016). The results here raise the same question as raised in discussions of California’s role in the NFIP – whether California “has just been lucky” (avoided major floods in the last 21 years), or rather “has flood risk … been overestimated or successfully managed or reduced” (Pinter et al., 2016). The analyses here – which normalize FEMA disaster payments to population as well as independent measures of flood exposure – suggest California has indeed managed its flood risk better than other areas of the US. We encourage California policymakers and flood managers to continue investing in floodplain management and flood-risk reduction.

Ryan Miller is a PhD Candidate in the Geography Graduate Group at the University of California, Davis. Nicholas Pinter is the Shlemon Chair in Applied Geosciences in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at UC Davis and is Associate Director, Center for Watershed Sciences.

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Watershed Outreach – Summer 2022

With summer wrapping up and a new school year upon us, we decided it was a good time to reflect on outreach done by researchers at the Center for Watershed Sciences (CWS) at UC Davis. Some of the outreach was organized by the Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee while others took initiative and pursued their own outreach. CWS researchers understand the great value of outreach to inspire new generations of scientists, and how it can be used as a tool to expand access to outdoor sciences across diverse communities. We hope you enjoy reading about our efforts and please reach out or comment below if you have opportunities for engagement! We are always looking for new ways to engage the public!

Bringing Suisun Marsh to a Classroom at Armijo High School

By: Caroline Newell, Brian Williamshen, Lynette Williams, Mona Broukhim, Alice Tung, Dylan Stompe, Kyle Phillips, Sarah Yarnell

On June 2nd and June 3rd 2022, the CWS DEI Committee had the pleasure of sending CWS researchers to Armijo High School in Fairfield CA to teach some city kids about the wonders of Suisun Marsh. The school is just a stone’s throw away from the largest marsh in the state. Suisun Marsh is a gemstone in the Pacific Flyway providing high quality habitat for numerous birds, fishes, mammals, and herps. Living right next to Suisun Marsh, many members of Solano County have never visited the ecosystem, much less studied its importance for wildlife. Motivated by a desire to connect communities with their local ecology, our DEI team targeted high schoolers with the goal of increasing natural literacy, and inspiring a few to spend more time in local wild sanctuaries.

The DEI committee teamed up with, Mr. Joash Hicks, an Environmental Science teacher for juniors and seniors at Armijo High School. With the help of Suisun Marsh researchers, we put on two days of learning where students interacted with a diverse array of aquatic life found in Suisun Marsh. Students were also taught about water quality and plants. Students tested water quality in the marsh and their drinking water to look for potentially dangerous chemicals (such as too much mercury or lead) and also common water quality metrics of importance to the ecosystem and wildlife. Students also learned tips and tricks for fishing and bird watching in the marsh – skills we hope they continue to develop on their own!

Top left: Lynette Williams hovers over a tank of Suisun Marsh fish discussing their characteristics with students. One student holds up a prickly sculpin (Cottus asper) in a small viewing jar. Top right: Alice Tung shows off some marsh algae to students. A yellow springs instrument monitors changes in water quality throughout the day as plants respire. Bottom left: Mona Broukhim asks students to identify a picture of a flying bird (yellow-billed magpie, Pica nuttalli) using their audobon society field guides. Bottom right: Brian Williamshen demonstrates the action of a fishing rod while Dylan Stompe teaches students how to tie fishing knots.
Two students are blown away by a specimen generously loaned for outreach by the Museum of Wildlife and Fish Biology at UC Davis.

During the lunch period both days, students interacted with specimens loaned out by the Museum of Wildlife and Fish Biology at UC Davis. The students got to observe animals from around the area – but closer up than they ever had before. They were even able to touch some of the animals – furs of an American beaver, a mountain lion, and feathers from local birds.

Using money generously donated by the CWS executive committee, the DEI committee bought items for the students to use when going out into the marsh on their own time – neck gaiters, small dry bags, National Geographic field guides, eye lenses, headlamps, field notebooks, and – best of all – one fishing rod and reel per class! Overall it was a very meaningful two days for students and researchers alike. We hope the students continue to explore the marsh and everything that makes it spectacular. We also hope to continue this sort of outreach, so if you know of any teachers or organizations interested in engaging Suisun Marsh researchers for outreach, please contact Caroline Newell at clsnewell@ucdavis.edu

Community outreach at Chiloquin High School in Chiloquin, Oregon

By: Rachelle Tallman

(Figures A and B) – Freshman and sophomore students at Chiloquin High School practice their dissection skills on rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) to review fish anatomy and function. (Figures C and D) students were asked to be scientific researchers for the day where they scanned and recorded individual tag numbers of fish.

During the 2021-2022 school year, I had the amazing opportunity to work with students from Chiloquin Jr/ Sr High School in Chiloquin, Oregon. I was thrilled to work with students in Mr. Aaron Martin’s high school class and Mrs. Emma Tibay’s middle school class. I traveled to the school on three separate occasions for some fun science talks. In the first session with the middle school students, we discussed how community gardening increases access to nutritious foods, while the high school students learned salmon anatomy through dissections. The second session focused on getting all the students outside and practicing scientific data collection. Each student chose their own juvenile Chinook salmon, which they scanned for an individual tag number. Students then recorded their name and the fish’s individual tag number into a computer database for future reference. After recording their data, the students released their fish into the nearby Williamson River, where underwater receivers recorded fish as they passed by. To add further excitement to the activity, we made it into a competition of whose fish would reach the mouth of the river first. This exercise demonstrated the importance of high-quality data recording; incorrect data could result in erroneously losing the competition. During the final outreach session, I announced the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winners of the competition and had all participating students work together for a round of science trivia. I hope to continue these outreach sessions for the upcoming year with brand new activities to engage the student’s curiosity and interests in science.

Wings Landing Education Program with Crystal Middle School

By Elsie Platzer

The Wings Landing Education Program, funded and implemented by Natural Resources Group, Inc. as part of the Wings Landing Tidal Habitat Restoration Project, is a summer day camp that brings four days of fun science activities to Suisun City middle schoolers. I was invited to join the group from Crystal Middle School as a “scientist in residence” of sorts, following a curriculum co-designed by school science teachers and NRG’s conservation biologists Abby Dziegel and Ryan Lopez. We spent our field days exploring Peytonia Ecological Reserve on the shorelines of Suisun Marsh, where I conduct my graduate student research.

The education program served as an early introduction to the scientific method and study design. Students made hypotheses about which types of bait different fishes might prefer in crawdad traps, or which foods might entice the most mammals to visit their “track plates” (cardboard sheets covered in flour). They took pictures and made meticulous observations in their nature journals. Then, when we returned the following day, they evaluated their hypotheses and came up with advice for future groups that might conduct the same experiments.

For my role, I talked about my own work in the marsh, my background, and my path towards becoming a researcher, emphasizing how field scientists don’t require immense resources or flashy technology to capture good data. Students watched me demonstrate sample collection with a simple zooplankton tow and Nalgene, and mirrored these methods by collecting their own water grabs to examine under microscopes back in the classroom.

Though many students who attend Crystal Middle School live within walking distance of the marsh, few had visited the Peytonia Ecological Reserve before. But even self-proclaimed “indoor kids” were soon cheerfully playing in the mud, pulling the “sausages” off of cattails, or poking at coyote scat with sticks. With the help of a guide from local business Grizzly Waters Kayaking, students paddled—some for the first time in their lives—out to the Wings Landing breach, marveling at river otters, wren nests, and giant mats of floating pondweed. Like true naturalists, they were excited by the diversity of plant and animal life, and eager to come back and explore further.

The Wings Landing Education Program did an excellent job engaging students with the beauty and complexity of Suisun Marsh. I felt privileged to participate alongside Abby, Crystal Middle School educators, and all the kids, who gave me a fresh perspective on the place where I do my work. Here’s to a successful summer!

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Science Happens

By Andrew L. Rypel

Looking back…

The famous expression ‘Life Happens!’ has certainly been around awhile. It’s reserved as a sort of colloquialism, describing how someone’s life or life plans are completely upended by circumstances, usually because of seemingly random events. This summer, I’ve been reflecting on how these types of events also seem to occur in science. Science, much like life, seems to kinda happen.

In my experience, most scientists follow surprisingly non-linear pathways through their careers. I can’t recall any scientist that set out with a specific plan and then perfectly executed that plan over a career. I’m sure they exist, but it must be rare. Things happen – you meet people, read interesting new things, change the science, and are changed by the changing science and experiences around you. It can feel a bit like a ‘random walk’ as described in movement ecology. And if you study a ecosystem or population for a long time, something big is bound to happen, and it will usually be a surprise. This might come from a species invasion, a mega-disturbance such as from a flood or wildfire, a population collapse, development of land, or any number of other things. It’s one of the reasons long-term research is so vital to our understanding of how the environment works. Humans tend to be quite bad at predicting shocks and shifts in dynamic systems. In their ‘fat tails’ paper, Batt et al. 2017, show how extreme events are more likely to occur for biological variables. Thus ecologists studying aquatic organisms and ecosystems in particular should expect surprises.

In other cases, ideas somehow seem to find their cosmic time. Anecdotally, it seems common enough that scientists have an idea, wait, and then someone else publishes it. And this usually isn’t because another scientist takes their idea (aka ‘scoops them’), but because an idea’s time has somehow come. Perhaps because new tools emerge that enable pursuit of ideas previously intractable. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn (1962) described a process of ‘normal science’, primarily as an articulation of prevalent and previously settled upon theories and frameworks. Sometimes this articulation by the science community happens in synchrony. 

Alternatively, in The Selfish Gene, Dawkins (1976) searched for an evolutionary explanation for seemingly harmful behaviors that persist. For example, what is the fitness benefit of martyrdom? Or devoting one’s life to unappreciated art or science? The proposed hypothesis – a surprising one to many, was the notion that ideas themselves might be in competition with one another. Interestingly, it was here where Dawkins originally coined the term ‘meme’ and is apparently still miffed at the internet highjacking of the word. Essentially, he suggested a selection process on ideas themselves, such that some ideas proliferate with success, while others die out. The ideas themselves, like viruses, owe nothing to the host. The meme concept or memetics apparently remains highly controversial throughout science.

Research on ‘panfish’ species like Pumpkinseed Sunfish was not something I thought I would ever do, or become so passionate about.

Good ideas are often timeless, but also frequently forgotten or ignored for a variety of biased reasons. In these cases, research does not happen – which is unfortunate for everyone (Rypel et al. 2021). For example, the confluence of climate change and biodiversity loss are fundamentally challenging science and society to find novel workable solutions. Indigenous knowledge successfully conserved ecosystems and biodiversity across the globe for long periods of time (Ogar et al. 2020). Unfortunately, western science too often emphasizes a single way of knowing, while ignoring other valid approaches (Dentzau 2019). Blending Indigenous knowledge with other science systems is an exciting step forward for many fields, but especially in the ecology and fisheries fields where I work and collaborate. Relatedly, transdisciplinary science strives for innovation in large part because of a willingness to search for useful ideas in other areas and/or fields – to get uncomfortable. This process seems to generate ideas that are fitter in both the scientific and sociopolitical realms. Yet for years, interdisciplinary science was actively discouraged. Working at the boundaries of the sciences and Indigenous frameworks is where much research will occur in the future. None of these science roads are, or will be, linear.

In my own science journey, conservation needs drive much of what I study. In graduate school I studied rivers, primarily because I grew up on some spectacular ones and was raised to love them, and also because I started to grasp their widespread degradation. Two studies in particular (Benke 1990 and Dynesius and Nilsson 1994) were important in understanding the scope of the problem. Work by Stanley and Doyle (2003) was motivating to help understand the complexities but importance of removing ‘deadbeat dams’. I later studied freshwater mussels, in part because I had always been fascinated by them, but also because I met several experts (seemingly randomly) who patiently taught me some identification, how endangered they were, and how new information could help save them. Amazingly, some of these folks even wanted to collaborate with me! When I worked for the Wisconsin DNR, I studied overfishing in bluegill and management options to remediate overfished ‘panfish’ populations #InDefenseOfPanfish. This topic was one of the top research priorities for fisheries biologists in that region at the time. I never dreamed I would move to California and study western fishes, water and drought. But life happens, and I got this amazing job at UC Davis and now work on all the crazy water and native fish issues in the West. Occasionally, I try and fail at explaining the subtleties of California water to friends and family that live in more hydrated regions.

Teaching exited young people about the beauty of fishes and joy of conservation is one of my favorite parts of the job.

It’s impossible to understand all the reasons behind the twists, turns, ups and downs in a science journey. And certainly going with the flow too much can be a bad thing too. Sometimes I wonder whether in California water science, we whipsaw too much in our priorities. Might we have better success if we set a more solid, albeit less trendy or weather-based course, and stuck to it? But surprises do happen that change the game – and we need to make room for them in the science enterprise. The fat tails paper tells us we should expect lots of surprises. And, it can be fun to think back about the serendipity of it all. Estes, another California scientist, reflected on the science magic of the twists and turns in this 2020 book – Serendipity

One thing is clear – scientists rarely work along a linear path and this certainly seems to be the case in California water. This is a topic I try to talk about openly with my own students. Some of my colleagues occasionally rib me for being a generalist, but conservation science has extraordinary depth of interest and overlap with so many fields and important issues. Water in particular connects all these things. We should be open to that which we haven’t planned. And so I thought this topic might make for an interesting blog post for you all too. 

If you feel comfortable, please share your own unpredictable (or not) science/water journey in the comments below! If you feel uncomfortable, perhaps this will help stimulate your thinking 🙂

Further Readings

Batt, R. D., S. R. Carpenter, and A. R. Ives. 2017. Extreme events in lake ecosystem time series. Limnology and Oceanography Letters 2:63-69.

Benke, A. C. 1990. A perspective on America’s vanishing streams. Journal of the North American Benthological Society 9:77-88.

Dawkins, R. 1976. The Selfish Gene. Best Books.

Dentzau, M. W. 2019. The tensions between indigenous knowledge and western science. Cultural Studies of Science Education 14:1031-1036.

Dynesius, M., and C. Nilsson. 1994. Fragmentation and flow regulation of river systems in the northern third of the world. Science 266:753-762.

Estes, J. A. 2020. Serendipity: An Ecologist’s Quest to Understand Nature. University of California Press.

Kuhn, T. S. 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press.

Ogar, E., G. Pecl, and T. Mustonen. 2020. Science must embrace traditional and indigenous knowledge to solve our biodiversity crisis. One Earth 3:162-165.

Rypel, A. L. 2015. Effects of a reduced daily bag limit on bluegill size structure in Wisconsin lakes. North American Journal of Fisheries Management 35:388-397.

Rypel, A. L., W. R. Haag, and R. H. Findlay. 2009. Pervasive hydrologic effects on freshwater mussels and riparian trees in southeastern floodplain ecosystems. Wetlands 29:497-504.

Rypel, A.L., P. Saffarinia, C.C. Vaughn, L. Nesper, K. O’Reilly, C.A. Parisek, M.L. Miller, P.B. Moyle, N.A. Fangue, M. Bell-Tilcock, D. Ayers, and S.R. David. 2021. Goodbye to “rough fish”: paradigm shift in the conservation of native fishes. Fisheries 46 605-616.

Rypel, A.L., C.A. Parisek, J. Lund, A. Willis, P.B. Moyle, Yarnell, S., and K. Börk. 2020. What’s the dam problem with deadbeat dams? https://californiawaterblog.com/2020/06/14/whats-the-dam-problem-with-deadbeat-dams/

Stanley, E. H., and M. W. Doyle. 2003. Trading off: the ecological effects of dam removal. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 1:15-22.

Meet Dr. Andrew Rypel, our new fish squeezer. https://californiawaterblog.com/2017/10/15/meet-dr-andrew-rypel-our-new-fish-squeezer/

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You Can’t Always Get What You Want – A Mick Jagger Theory of Drought Management


Graph of cumulative job and revenue data for California (Josue Medellín-Azuara, 2015)

by Jay Lund

[This is a reposting of a CaliforniaWaterBlog.com post from February 2016, near the end of the previous drought.  For human uses, conditions seem somewhat similar to this point in the previous drought, so this perspective might be useful. A couple of more recent readings are added to this post.]

“You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes you just might find
You get what you need,” Rolling Stones (1969, Let It Bleed album)

The ongoing California drought has many lessons for water managers and policy-makers. Perhaps the greatest lesson is how unimportant a drought can be if we manage water well.

For the last two years, California lost about 33% of its normal water supply due to drought, but from a statewide perspective saw statistically undetectable losses of jobs and economic production, despite often severe local effects. Agricultural production, about 2% of California’s economy, was harder hit, fallowing about 6% of irrigated land, and reducing net revenues by 3% and employment by 10,000 jobs from what it would have been without drought. Yet, high commodity prices and continued shifts to higher valued crops (such as almonds, with more jobs per acre) raised statewide agricultural employment slightly and raised overall revenues for agriculture to record levels in 2014 (the latest year with state statistics).

Cities, responsible for the vast majority of California’s economy, were required to reduce water use by an average of 25% in 2015. These conservation targets were generally well achieved on quite short notice.   Most remarkably, there has been little discernible statewide economic impact from this 25% reduction in urban water use, although many local water districts are suffering financially.


More groundwater pumping greatly reduced drought impacts. Picture courtesy of DWR.

How could such a severe drought cause so little economic damage? Much of the lost water supply from drought was made up for by withdrawals of water from storage, particularly groundwater. But the substantial amount of water shortage that remained was largely well-allocated. Farmers of low-valued crops commonly sold water to farmers of higher-valued crops and to cities, greatly reducing economic losses. Within each sector, moreover, utilities, farmers, and individual water users allocated available water for higher-valued uses and shorted generally lower-valued uses and crops.

If shortages are well-allocated, California has tremendous potential to absorb drought-related shortages with relatively little economic impact. This economic robustness to drought arises from several characteristics of California’s economic structure and its uses of water.

First, the most water-intensive part of California’s economy, agriculture, accounts for about 80% of all human water use, but is about 2% of California’s economy. So long as water deliveries are preserved for the bulk of the economy, in cities, California’s economy can withstand considerable drought (Harou et al. 2010). And the large strong parts of the economy can aid those more affected by drought.


Gross annual revenue for California crops ($ millions). (using California Department of Water Resources irrigated crop acres and water use data)

Second, within agriculture, roughly 80-90% of employment and revenues are from higher-valued crops (such as vegetable and tree crops) which occupy about 50% of California’s irrigated land and are about 50% of California’s agricultural water use. If available water is allocated to these crops, a very large water shortage can be accommodated with a much smaller (but still substantial and unprecedented) economic loss.  Water markets have made these allocations flexibly, with some room for improvement.

Global food markets have fundamentally changed the nature of drought for humans. Throughout history, disruptions of regional food production due to drought would lead to famine and pestilence. This is no longer the case for California and other globally-connected economies, where food is readily available at more stable global prices. California continued to export high-valued fruits and nuts, even as corn and wheat production decreased, with almost no effects on local or global prices. Food insecurity due to drought is largely eliminated in globalized economies (poverty is another matter). Subsistence agriculture remains more vulnerable from drought.

Third, cities also concentrate much of their water use in lower-valued activities. Roughly half of California’s urban water use is for landscape irrigation. By concentrating water use reductions on such less-productive uses, utilities and individual water users greatly lowered the costs of drought. If cities had shut down 25% of businesses to implement 25% cuts in water use, the drought and California’s drought management would have been truly catastrophic.

Fourth, although California’s climate is very susceptible to drought, California’s geology provides abundant  drought water storage in the form of groundwater, if managed well.  The availability of groundwater allowed expanded pumping which made up for over 70% of agriculture’s loss of surface water during the drought and provided a buffer for many cities as well. If we replenish groundwater in wetter years, as envisioned in the 2014 groundwater legislation, California’s geologic advantage for withstanding drought should continue.

All of this leads to what we might call a Mick Jagger theory of drought management. Yes, droughts can be terrible in preventing us from getting all that we want, and will cause severe local impacts. But if we manage droughts and water well and responsibly, then we can usually get the water that the economy and society really needs. This overall economic strength also allows for aid to those more severely affected by drought. This is an optimistic and pragmatic lesson for dry drought-prone places with strong globalized economies, such as California.

California’s ecosystems should have similar robustness of ecosystem health with water use, and naturally persisted through substantial droughts long ago.  But today, California’s ecosystems entered this drought in an already severely depleted and disrupted state.   (The Mick Jagger characterization of California’s ecosystems might be “Gimme Shelter,” from the same album.)  If we can sufficiently improve our management of California’s ecosystems before and during droughts, perhaps they will be more robust to drought. Reconciling native ecosystems with land and water development is an important challenge.

“If I don’t get some shelter
Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away” Rolling Stones (1969, Let It Bleed album)

The drought reminds us that California is a dry place where water will always cause controversy and some dissatisfaction.  However, despite the many apocalyptic statements on California’s drought, the state has done quite well economically, so far, overall. But, the drought has identified areas needing improvement, so that we can continue to get most of what we really need from water in California, even in future droughts.  We should neither panic, nor be complacent, but focus on the real challenges identified by the drought.

Jay Lund is Co-Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California – Davis.

Further reading

Lund, J.,  Follow the Water! Who uses how much water where?, CaliforniaWaterBlog.com, Posted on

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.

Harou, J.J., J. Medellin-Azuara, T. Zhu, S.K. Tanaka, J.R. Lund, S. Stine, M.A. Olivares, and M.W. Jenkins, “Economic consequences of optimized water management for a prolonged, severe drought in California,” Water Resources Research, doi:10.1029/2008WR007681, Vol. 46, 2010

Howitt R, Medellín-Azuara J, MacEwan D, Lund J and Sumner D., “Economic Analysis of the 2015 Drought for California Agriculture.” Center for Watershed Sciences, UC Davis. 16 pp, August, 2015.

Medellín-Azuara J., R. Howitt, D. MacEwan, D. Sumner and J. Lund, “Drought killing farm jobs even as they grow,” CaliforniaWaterBlog.com, June 8, 2015.

Wikipedia, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You_Can’t_Always_Get_What_You_Want

Wikipedia, “Gimme Shelter”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gimme_Shelter

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The vortex of executive activity

by Jay Lund

The graphic below seems to apply to any bureaucracy, with larger bureaucracies showing this tendency more strongly.  In this vortex conception of management, one can often make more progress from the periphery than from the center of power.

The center spins rapidly, always changing directions, but moving little in space.  Those in the periphery can go a greater distance.  Being in the center is more exciting and prestigious, but not necessarily more productive.

This analogy came to me while working in the Washington, DC area, where I encountered an abundance of very smart hard-working people, who seemed to accomplish little due to opposition from a high density of very smart hard-working people.

Almost all innovations in water and water management come from the periphery.

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Two-way thinking in natural resource management

By Andrew L. Rypel

“I have more confidence in the ability of institutions to improve their thinking than in the ability of individuals to improve their thinking” ~Daniel Kahneman

It is long recognized that there are two dominant modes of thinking (Glatzeder 2011). New research and empirical data support the elemental interplay between these modes in our behavior, summarized in the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman. These two modes or systems of thinking are dynamic and influence our behavior in a vast variety of subtle and less so ways. System 1 is ‘fast’ and intuitive, operating almost unconsciously, and relies on learned associations. It is tempting to rely on this mode for decisions that must be made quickly. The problem is that this mode is often wrong. System 2 by contrast uses reason, and the slow process of reasoning. Immanuel Kant wrote“All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason.” Yet reason and System 2 require deliberate focused effort, and training to get better at. It is ‘slow’. The enlightenment was fueled largely by a growing appreciation for System 2. System 2 thinking is also endemic to science and the scientific method which developed as a way of using reason and rational thought. This is the system used to conduct what is now colloquially and increasingly referred to as ‘deep work’. Sadly many of us, while claiming to rely extensively on System 2, in fact spend most of our time in System 1. A prime example is our politics. How often are any of us swayed by excellent arguments from the other side, even following a rational debate?

The question for this blog is: Can Kahneman’s ideas be applied to group decisions, and thus to natural resource management? It’s a bit murky, but there are clues, and I have some thoughts. In Thinking, Fast and Slow  Kahneman was clearly writing about the combination of the two systems in each person – not groups of people. Yet it seems plausible that a well-managed team of people could avoid the excesses and extract the best elements of thinking from each system. But, different teams of people invariably have different mixes of System 1- or 2-leaning thought. Further, the appropriate mix of thinking needed for each environmental problem may differ, and change over time. 

Reflecting on the usefulness and practicality of both systems of thinking is probably universally helpful. This exercise is an example of ‘metacognition’, which can be defined generally as: thinking about how you think. Metacognition is a high order abstraction that might help us personally, but also collectively as team members or leaders in organizations. System 1 is needed to make timely decisions and prevent gridlock and lack of progress. It is the system in which we spend most of our time, and there is a reactive ease to its use. But this system has inherent flaws and is vulnerable to poor judgment. Humans generally avoid decisions perceived as risky because of loss aversion, which has evolutionary foundations. Thus, we often default towards safe and familiar decisions, even when a riskier choice might be better. System 2 can help reduce loss aversion (by better thinking through the pros and cons of a decision), provided there is enough time, and often the best available science. It is increasingly clear that Kahneman himself believes group decisions can be improved, primarily through slower processes and better decision making structures (see above opening quote to this blog found in this recent piece).

Fig. 1. Idealized natural resource management system adapted from Nielson 1999

Potential applications to natural resource management

Natural resource management, including water management, balances the needs of organisms, ecosystems and people (Fig. 1). Effective management occurs at the nexus of all three areas. Yet because many resource agencies are political, there are discrete time pressures on decisions. This could be because elected and appointed leaders hold power for only short periods, laws and regulations change alongside attitudes, political circumstances favor or preclude decision-making, or because an ecosystem or resource is collapsing in front of us. The time-sensitive nature of these decisions makes resource management agencies vulnerable to biases and issues associated with both thinking systems. Quality resource management might therefore hinge on a general ability to balance Systems 1 and 2 thinking.

It remains unclear how most extant water or conservation organizations lean disproportionately towards System 1 or 2 thinking. One might argue that, given their famously grinding speed, government organizations rely overly on System 2, perhaps to prepare for politically-opportune times or to avoid the controversy of actually making decisions. However, there are also abundant examples of government decisions being made rashly and without the time needed to fully appreciate key dynamics. The private sector ostensibly seems to favor System 1 for its faster decision-making and links to constantly changing financial markets. Yet it is also clear that most folks staking large sums of private capital on a venture extensively reason the issue from multiple angles before a risky decision. 

The value of two-way thinking

There is usefulness to both systems. Do we appreciate the value of both systems and find ways to organize and challenge ourselves and our organizations for the missing piece? For example, we need to organize our science and policy-makers to spend time on problems and solutions well in advance of short political windows of decision-making opportunity. This implies a need for greater organization of science syntheses to continually prepare policymakers for the types of decisions they will need to make over their tenure. Scheffer et al. 2013 articulates another undervalued benefit, specifically to slow decision making. That is, that many breakthroughs come outside the confines of the traditional workplace. By supplying enough time, stronger decisions might emerge through simple activities like dog walks, bowling adventures, or picnics where novel thoughts and conversations might take place. Can organizations and leaders deliberately generate the space for unstructured conversations and serendipity? Can this lead towards new compromises? New conservation and business successes? A recent survey of CEOs found that dealing with complexity was often identified as the greatest institutional challenge (Kleiman 2011). The CEOs then identified several directions for overcoming rising complexity; this included increasing creativity, increasing dexterity, and improving customer relationships. Yet budgeting time for developing these skills or encouraging person-to-person interactions are rarely prioritized in strategic plans or time planning exercises.

In many natural resource organizations, it probably helps to have people highly skilled in System 2 thinking. There are good reasons for System 1 thinking, but too often, it is simply wrong, and bad decisions can be avoided with a slower process. Perhaps there is not enough time to develop full blown science studies on a topic. Nonetheless, can we quickly summarize and synthesize previous scientific information from similar enough work to infuse elements of System 2 thinking into fast decision making? This is an advantage to having in-house science bureaus or R&D arms in organizations. And also a sad aspect to their (often hyperpolitical) demise. It is a challenge to have System 2 ecosystem management in a System 1 political world. 

Conversely, are there examples where we ‘research topics to death’? Clearly, the answer is yes. Perhaps what we really want is the ability to make decisions with System 2 thoroughness but with closer to System 1 speed. In California, we know the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is in a prolonged state of decline and the status quo is not working – at best. Time is increasingly limited before more species go extinct. More research along the lines of the last 40 years is unlikely to yield novel breakthrough information and abate the trajectory. More research is always needed, but more decisions are also needed – if they are the right decisions. However, it is challenging, especially given the ever-changing mix of system thinking needed for each problem and through time. This disorientation contributes to our bad intuition about probability, poor perception of time, and faulty decisions overall (Nowotny 2016). 

What can we do about all this?  Well, the adaptive cycle of natural resource management might be inevitable. We will need to experiment – a lot – and build on things that seem to work. Lund (2022) provides an overview for ‘rational water planning’, which is simply an in-depth look at one kind of System 2 approach. We can learn from prior experiments, even if they produced negative or null results. Large experiments, likely perceived to be ‘risky’, probably have a better chance at saving our California biodiversity, and to some extent us. To accomplish this, we will need well-trained scientists and managers skilled in System 2 to help design and monitor the great experiments of the future. We also need leaders unafraid and supported enough to pull the trigger on changing the status quo in a timely manner (i.e., those with an appreciation for the need to exercise System 1). Finally, we should expect the unexpected – and be prepared to try new experiments when the last great thing fails. 

Bog wetlands in the fall. Photo by Andrew Rypel

Andrew L. Rypel is a Professor and the Peter B. Moyle and California Trout Chair of coldwater fish ecology at the University of California, Davis. He is a faculty member in the Department of Wildlife, Fish & Conservation Biology and Co-Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences.

Acknowledgements: I thank Jay Lund and Steve Carpenter who provided thoughts and comments on earlier versions of this essay.

Further Reading:

Glatzeder, B. 2011. Two modes of thinking: evidence from cross-cultural psychology. pp 233-247 in S. Han and E. Poppel, eds Cultural and neural frames of cognition and communication: on thinking. Springer, Berlin, Germany.

Kahneman, D. 2013. Thinking Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, NY USA.

Kleiman, P. 2011. Learning at the edge of chaos. SISHE-J: The All Ireland Journal of TEaching and Learning in Higher Education 3: 62.1-62.11.

Lund, J. 2022. Approaches to water planning. https://californiawaterblog.com/2022/02/27/approaches-to-water-planning/

Newport, C. 2016. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Grand Central Publishing, New York, NY USA.

Nielson, L. A. 1999. History of inland fisheries management in North America. Pages 3-30 in C. C. Kohler, and W. A. Hubert, editors. Inland Fisheries Management in North America. American Fisheries Society, Bethesda, MD USA.

Nowotny, H. 2016. The Cunning of Uncertainty. Wiley, Hoboken, NJ USA.

Rypel, A.L., P.B. Moyle, and J. Lund. 2021. A swiss cheese model for fish conservation in California. https://californiawaterblog.com/2021/01/24/a-swiss-cheese-model-for-fish-conservation-in-california/

Scheffer, M., J. Bascompte, T.K. Bjordam, S.R. Carpenter, L.B. Clarke, C. Folke, P. Marquet, N. Mazzeo, M. Meerhoff, O. Sala, and F.R. Westley. 2013. Dual thinking for scientists. Ecology and Society 20: 3.

Understanding noise in human judgements https://issues.org/tag/daniel-kahneman/

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Dissecting the use of water management plans in California

By Nicola Ulibarri

California uses plans as a primary tool for managing water throughout the state. Regulations like the Urban Water Management Planning Act of 1983, Regional Water Management Planning Act of 2002, Water Conservation Act of 2009, and Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 require local water agencies to write plans documenting their available water supplies and develop approaches to use water more sustainably and/or ensure a secure supply. This blog probes the goals California has in requiring local and regional water plans, and asks whether the plans are a good tool for achieving more sustainable water use.

California loves water plans, but without much justification

Since the 1980s, plans have been a go-to tool for the California state legislature and the Department of Water Resources (DWR). Plans are just one of many different policy tools the state could use to shape how Californians use and manage water. For instance, they could directly regulate how much different industries can use, they could implement a new tax to encourage conservation, or they could require the use of specific water saving technologies; each of these tools are used by state agencies in other policy domains. However, the state has been reluctant to regulate water use directly, instead setting broad goals (like achieving sustainability) and getting local actors to decide how they want to achieve those goals (individually or within a region) and codify those strategies within a plan.

If we examine the legislation that authorizes DWR to require water management plans, we find relatively little justification for why they chose a plan as opposed to any other tool (Escobedo Garcia and Ulibarri 2022a). In each statute, the legislature lays out detailed and explicit goals for achieving water security, encouraging conservation or regional coordination, or enhancing long-term sustainability – but then legislates the use of plans without discussion of their strengths or weaknesses. As an extreme example, in SB X7-7 (which authorizes DWR to require Agricultural Water Management Plans), the rationale for requiring irrigation districts to write plans is simply because other water agencies have to: “Urban water districts are required to adopt water management plans… [and] Agricultural water suppliers that receive water from the federal Central Valley Project [CVP] are required by federal law to prepare and implement water conservation plans… [Therefore] Agricultural water suppliers [including those who do not receive CVP water] shall be required to prepare water management plans to achieve conservation of water” (CWC §10,801). They assume that planning is good, and therefore require plans.

California water plans are good at managing for water quantity, but overlook environmental and social impacts

To understand what objectives water management plans are achieving, we can assess the written content of a plan, to see what dimensions of water management they discuss. As an example, a plan that focuses entirely on human uses of water, without discussing any environmental consequences of where that water was obtained from, is unlikely to intentionally improve environmental quality if implemented. Likewise, a plan that has a detailed evaluation of how climate change is likely to affect future water availability is more likely to develop management approaches that take that variability into account.

In reviewing plans written by water agencies in the Kings, Cosumnes, and American watersheds (Escobedo Garcia and Ulibarri 2022b), we found that across all plan types, they had a thorough discussion of water supply available in their jurisdiction, including an analysis of current and future conditions (Figure 1). Almost all plans discussed water quality, but less than half incorporated more than a brief discussion, suggesting a lack of attention to potential contamination issues. 

Figure 1. Level of detail in Central Valley water management plans. Bars show percent of plans discussing each category in detail, briefly, or not at all. (Source: Escobedo Garcia & Ulibarri 2022b)

Relative to water supply, plans had far less attention to environmental dimensions of water management (e.g., species or ecosystem health), the impact of climate change on the water cycle, or even human-environment dimensions like water for agriculture. However, the category that was least likely to be discussed was the social impacts of water supply, either socioeconomic impacts (e.g., a lack of water for disadvantaged communities) or health-related impacts from contamination – almost no plans discussed either topic in detail.

Finally, all plans detailed a variety of management tools to improve the sustainability and security of water supplies in their jurisdictions. Coordination activities (e.g., plans to hold annual stakeholder meetings) were the most commonly proposed tools, followed by monitoring. Less common, but still present in about half of the plans, were conservation activities or strategies to build new infrastructure or update existing infrastructure. 

Water agencies write plans because they have to, but don’t necessarily implement the plans

We can also look at the content of the plans to assess how useful that plan is as a tool to guide actual management of water. With the exception of quantifying their water supplies, most plans appeared to meet the minimum guidelines required by DWR, rather than adding detail that would render the information in the plan more useful. For instance, despite proposing a number of management tools, very few of the plans included details about how those tools would actually be implemented – who would implement them, on what timeline, or with what funding. Even the most thorough plans overall – Groundwater Sustainability Plans – suffered from this limitation, with most plans to implement managed aquifer recharge suffering from a lack of feasibility (Ulibarri et al. 2021). Other evidence that the plan contents weren’t implemented comes because updated versions of the plans (most of which are required on 5-year cycles) would explicitly say they hadn’t implemented prior proposed activities, often citing a lack of funding.

Interviews with the agencies that authored water management plans confirmed that the plans were written because they were legally required, but did not guide the agencies’ day to day actions. For instance, they told us, “We use the urban water management plans as a… planning tool just to comply with state law because we have to, but when a new development comes in, we’re not pulling that out and looking at okay, did we account for that?” and, “We do Urban Water Management Plans. Those are required every five years by law, so we have to do those.” The water agencies used other documents, such as Water Master Plans, for their day-to-day decisions, not those required by DWR.


California loves its resource management plans. And to comply with planning requirements, Californians spend large amounts of time and money: water utilities drafting or contracting out the plans, stakeholders crafting detailed comments on plan drafts, and state agencies writing guidance documents, conducting trainings, and reviewing submissions. However, in light of worsening droughts, ecological collapse, and unequal access to clean drinking water, it’s necessary to think critically about whether plans are the best tool, or are being best employed, to solve ongoing water challenges.

Nicola Ulibarri is an Associate Professor of Urban Planning and Public Policy at the University of California, Irvine.


Escobedo Garcia, N., & Ulibarri, N. (2022a). Plan writing as a policy tool: instrumental, conceptual, and tactical uses of water management plans in California. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, 1-15. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13412-022-00754-0 

Escobedo Garcia, N., & Ulibarri, N. (2022b). Planning for effective water management: an evaluation of water management plans in California. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 1-21. https://doi.org/10.1080/09640568.2022.2082930

Ulibarri, N., Escobedo Garcia, N., Nelson, R. L., Cravens, A. E., & McCarty, R. J. (2021). Assessing the feasibility of managed aquifer recharge in California. Water Resources Research, 57(3), e2020WR029292. https://doi.org/10.1029/2020WR029292

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The Great Lakes and Invasive Species

This week’s CaliforniaWaterBlog post is an excerpt (Box 1) from a recent Delta Independent Science Board report on non-native species and the California Delta.  This excerpt summarizes the experience of the Great Lakes, and how its physical and ecological management has led to waves of profoundly disruptive species invasions, resulting in a sequence of “novel” ecosystems.  This sequence of invasions seems likely to continue to shape the Great Lakes.  This history is a wake-up and warning for policymakers and those working on California’s Delta.  Dan Eagan’s 2018 book is an excellent and readable history of these cyclic invasions and attempts to manage and cultivate them.

The Great Lakes are one of the most well-studied and invaded ecosystems in the world. Nearly every aspect of management is impacted by invaders (Egan 2018). The Great Lakes’ aquatic ecosystem developed following the last Ice Age by the recession of continental glaciers. Native species evolved from remnant populations in local and regional streams and a few that swam upstream. The Great Lakes’ topography, particularly Niagara Falls, limited species introductions to the upper Great Lakes until commercial navigation expanded in the early 1800s with the construction of New York’s Erie Canal and the Welland Canal that linked the lower Great Lakes to the upper Great Lakes.

Among these invasive species was the sea lamprey (Petromyzon marinus), which spread through the Great Lakes over several decades and depleted native predators particularly the lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush), which lacked any defenses. After years of scientific study, it was found that sea lamprey could be suppressed (but not eliminated) by treating specific stream reaches with a species-specific poison at specific times of the year when they were most vulnerable. Sea lamprey populations were reduced by about 90%, but control efforts continue, costing more than $20 million annually (Kinnunen 2018).

The herring-like alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus) also entered the Great Lakes, replacing intermediate species in the food web. With sea lamprey suppressing native predators, alewife boomed so high, they experienced massive annual die-offs that had to be removed from Chicago beaches by bulldozers. Commercial fishing began on alewife. To further help control the alewife population, several species of Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.) were introduced (Parsons 1973). Salmon survived well in the Great Lakes and triggered a massive sports fishery that bought billions of dollars annually to the Great Lakes. Annual stocking of (non-native) salmon raised in hatcheries became a major fisheries management priority and now stocking rates are tied to the production of its main prey, the non-native alewife.

The opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway eventually brought larger, faster commercial ships and their ballast water to the Great Lakes, resulting in the new introduction of a wide range of species. Most notably, the introduction of zebra mussels (Dreissena polymorpha) to the Great Lakes in the late 1980s is considered the poster child of a successful invader. It has had profound impacts on the ecology and economy of the Great Lakes that range from clogging of water intakes for drinking and water-power operations (estimated costs into the billions) to loss of native clams to the decimation of primary production and disrupted food webs including the salmon recreational fishery. Interestingly, the invasion of the Great Lakes by zebra mussels was predicted more than a century before, based on shipping connections between the Great Lakes and areas where the mussel was well established (Carlton 1991). Quagga mussels (Dreissena rostriformis bugensis) invaded a few years later and have largely out-competed zebra mussels throughout the deeper portions of the Great Lakes. Both mussels have since spread throughout much of the Midwest and well into the west including California, Nevada, and Texas.

There is now concern about further invasions, including the movement of several Asian carp species (Cyprinus spp.) up the Mississippi River to the Great Lakes through the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.

At each stage in this continuing history, local and regional interests and different state, provincial, national governments, and international bodies have acted, often out of necessity to manage these ecosystems or control major pathways such as ship ballast water. Management efforts to control invaders once established have been very limited. The entire Great Lakes ecosystem has been transformed by invasive species.


Carlton, J. (1991). Predictions of the arrival of the zebra mussel in North America. Dreissena Polymorpha Information Review, 2:1.

Delta Independent Science Board (2021), The Science of Non-native Species in a Dynamic Delta, Delta Independent Science Board, Sacramento, CA.

Egan, Dan (2018), The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, W. W. Norton & Company, 384 pp.

Kinnunen, R. (2018). Great Lakes sea lamprey control is critical. Michigan State University Extension, Michigan State Sea Grant.

Parsons, J.W. (1973). History of Salmon in the Great Lakes, 1850 – 1970. Technical Paper 68. U.S. Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife, Great Lakes Science Center.

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Follow the Water!

by Jay Lund

People often have strange ideas about how water works.  Even simple water systems can be confusing.  When water systems become large complex socio-physical-ecological systems serving many users and uses, opportunities for confusion become extreme, surpassing comprehension by our ancient Homo sapien brains.

When confused by conflicting rhetoric, using numbers to “follow the water” can be helpful.  The California Water Plan has developed some such numbers.  This essay presents their net water use numbers for 2018, by California’s agricultural, urban, and environmental uses by hydrologic region. 

Net water use is the amount by which a water use deprives water from other uses.  This differs from gross water use (a.k.a. applied water use) which includes both the net use plus any water returned after use which is available downstream for other uses.  The biggest net water uses, which deplete the most available water, are evapotranspiration from crops, urban landscapes, and wetlands, as well as required flows to the ocean.  Even large instream environmental or hydropower flows high in a watershed can have little net water use if reused downstream. 

The water accounting for agricultural and urban net water use is fairly strong here, but accounting for environmental flows remains primitive, and should probably be a lower bound.  Much past accounting conveniently (and sloppily) quantified “environmental water use” as all water not consumed by agriculture and cities, which inflated environmental water use.  The environmental water accounting here includes only evapotranspiration from interior environmental purposes (mostly wetlands) and outflows to the ocean required by law and regulation.

Here are the raw regional net water use numbers for 2018 by hydrologic region (arranged mostly north to south) by major purpose.  Details and data are available at https://data.cnra.ca.gov/dataset/water-plan-water-balance-data

Table 1. Net water uses in 2018 by hydrologic region and use category

If the average water availability in California is about 75 million acre-ft per year, clearly there will be more “surplus” ocean outflows and some greater water use in wetter years, and less “surplus” outflow and water use in drought years.  In this large, diverse, and complex water system, it is hard to catch every drop before it reaches the ocean.  Even in very dry years, some water escapes the clutches of water managers and users.

Table 2. Percent of net water use in each hydrologic region by major water use

Table 2. Percent of net water use in each hydrologic region by major water use

California’s tremendous hydrologic and water use diversity jumps out from Table 2.  In the North Coast, net water use is 94% environmental (mostly outflow from wild and scenic rivers), with very little other uses (agricultural use here might be a bit more from illegal agriculture).  Most of California’s hydrologic regions have less than 10% of their water use being environmental, including the major urban regions and three of the largest the agricultural use regions.  All regions could be called unbalanced, individually, in different ways, which makes the state on average seem more balanced than it really is. 

When presented as percent of net water use, agriculture is the largest overall water use in California, and urban use is a distant third, as least in 2018.  Urban water conservation is good and merits some attention, but we clearly obsess with it disproportionately from a statewide perspective.  Agriculture is the big water use, and it is important how this use is managed (and largely reduced) for the future and for droughts.  Slash and burn approaches to water conservation hurt people and often ecosystems.

Other DWR data would show that total environmental use varies wildly from dry to wet years because much of it is for wild and scenic river flows. 

Table 3. Percent of net water use for each major use, by hydrologic region

96% of net environmental water use is in just two northern regions. Most regions in California have less than 1% of total state net water use for environment.  89% of agricultural water use is concentrated in just four regions.  73% of urban water use occurs in just two regions.  We often talk about how important or unimportant water uses are for California overall, while neglecting how even small uses statewide can dominate in some regions, and how some uses of large statewide concern are almost absent from many regions.

We should make more use of numbers in water policy. For example, Greg Gartrell et al. (2017 and 2022) have done insightful analyses of Delta inflows and outflows, which dispel several myths and put Delta water balance in perspective.  Grafton et al. (2018) show how water conservation based on gross water use is often ineffective and misleading for saving water.  A recent Delta Independent Science Board (2022) report reviews how we might make better water numbers and put them to better use for current and future challenges.  Implementing the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act will require far better and more available numbers for groundwater, surface water, and water demands than we have ever had.

We need insightful numbers to challenge and improve our current conceptions and prepare a more common basis for the difficult water discussions needed for a better future.  

Jay Lund is a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Co-Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California – Davis. He is easily confused, so numbers help him think things through.

Further reading

Delta Independent Science Board. 2022. Review of Water Supply Reliability Estimation Related to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Report to the Delta Stewardship Council. Sacramento, California.

DWR, California Water Plan water use data https://data.cnra.ca.gov/dataset/water-plan-water-balance-data

Gartrell, G., J. Mount, and E. Hanak (2022), “Tracking Where Water Goes in a Changing Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, Technical Appendix: Methods and Detailed Results for 1980–2021,” PPIC, San Francisco, CA.

Grafton et al. (2018), “The Paradox of Irrigation Efficiency”, Science, https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.aat9314

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Saving Clear Lake’s Endangered Chi

By Peter B. Moyle and Thomas L. Taylor

‘Tens of thousands of these fish once ascended streams in Spring. They are of major cultural importance to the Pomo people who harvested them as a valued food source.’ When you read statements like this, most likely it is salmon that come to mind. Yet this statement characterizes the Clear Lake Hitch or Chi, a non-salmonid fish, that ascends the tributaries to Clear Lake (Lake County) to spawn each spring (Thompson et al. 2013, Pfieffer 2022). Spawners are typically 10-14 inches long. They once moved up the streams in large numbers as soon as spring rains created sufficient stream flows to attract the fish (Moyle 2002, Moyle et al. 2015, Feyrer 2019).

We had the good fortune to be able to observe runs in the 1970s when we were studying Clear Lake’s unique fish fauna, following in the bootsteps of John Hopkirk. Hopkirk (1973) described the Clear Lake hitch and other Clear Lake fishes as unique forms adapted for life in this ancient (2.5 million years!) lake. Moyle was studying the lake’s fishes, while Taylor was documenting the distribution and ecology of the stream fishes (Taylor et al 1982.). Taylor also was (and still is) fascinated with photographing native fishes. The abundant hitch made good subjects. The photographs here show hitch spawning in streams in the 1970s and in 1990, when they were considerably more abundant than they are today, a reminder of what we are now missing.

Lure imitating a juvenile Clear Lake hitch. Lucky Craft Pointer 100-089.

In the same period, graduate student Eugene Geary conducted a life history study of hitch because of their abundance and predictability, perfect for a M.S. thesis study (Geary and Moyle 1980). We were concerned about their long-term persistence in the lake because they were thought of as ‘rough fish’(Rypel 2021) and knew that another stream spawner, the Clear Lake splittail, had already been extirpated (Moyle 2002, Moyle et al. 2015). When exploring the spawning streams, at times we would see dozens of fish that were dead for no apparent reason. We were told that local kids had a tradition of ‘hitching’, killing fish for the fun of it. There was also a commercial fishery in Clear Lake that, while focused on Sacramento blackfish, harvested hitch every year as well. Non-native predators also took their toll. Local largemouth bass anglers still use a lure made to look like a juvenile hitch (see photo above). Yet, in the 1970s, hitch were abundant enough so that they were labeled as a “persistent” native fish in the paper on their life history (Geary and Moyle 1980).

This optimistic view of their persistence was overshadowed by the fate of splittail and thicktail chub which had been extirpated from Clear Lake, and by Sacramento perch, which were rare (and are now extirpated from the lake). In 1989, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife listed Clear Lake hitch as a Fish Species of Special Concern. In 2014, the California Fish and Game Commission listed it as Threatened. This year, the USFWS has agreed to consider listing it as Threatened (see https://biologicaldiversity.org/w/news/press-releases/californias-clear-lake-hitch-back-on-track-for-endangered-species-protections-2022-04-14/). Taxonomic issues that might have prevented listing have now been resolved (Baumsteiger and Moyle 2019).

The causes of its rapid decline toward extinction are multiple and are tied to large-scale changes to Clear Lake and its watershed (Thompson et al. 2013, Moyle et al. 2015). However, the single biggest cause of the recent decline seems to be stream habitat degradation, including barriers, gravel mining, and loss of crucial spring flows for spawning and early development, as well as for transport of the larval fish back to Clear Lake. These problems are exacerbated by the current severe drought (e.g., Larson 2022). This spring, spawning hitch were found in only two tributaries (Kelsey, Adobe creeks) and many of those fish had to be rescued and returned to the lake, when streams stopped flowing (Pfeiffer 2022). Any eggs and larvae produced by these fish were stranded in the drying streams.

The fate of Clear Lake hitch is tied to restoring spring flows to spawning streams, along with barrier removal and other habitat restoration actions. Such restoration will take continued leadership by the Pomo people in the watershed, cooperation among the numerous agencies with authority in the region, citizen volunteer efforts (such as stream surveys), and lots of funding from state and federal sources.

Ideally, the actions to protect Clear Lake hitch would also stimulate interest in other remaining endemic lake-dwelling species such as Clear Lake tule perch, Clear Lake sculpin, and Sacramento blackfish. Saving the Clear Lake hitch could open a whole new chapter for fish conservation in Clear Lake and its tributary streams.

Peter B. Moyle is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Davis and is Associate Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences.Thomas L. Taylor is a retired fish biologist with a long history of working on California fishes. He is a native fish enthusiast and has spent thousands of hours in streams photographing fish.

Further reading

Baumsteiger, J., M. Young, and P. B. Moyle. 2018. Using the Distinct Population Segment (DPS) concept to protect fishes with low levels of genomic differentiation: conservation of an endemic minnow (Hitch). Transactions of American Fisheries Society 148:406-416. https://doi.org/ 10.1002/tafs.10144.

Feyrer, F. 2019. Observations of the spawning ecology of the imperiled Clear Lake Hitch. California Fish and Game 105:225-23

Geary, R. E., and P. B. Moyle. 1980. Aspects of the ecology of the Hitch, Lavinia exilicauda (Cyprinidae), a persistent native cyprinid in Clear Lake, California. The Southwestern Naturalist 25: 385-390.

Hopkirk, J.D. 1973. Endemism in Fishes of the Clear Lake region in Central California. University of California Publications in Zoology 96.

Larson, E. 2022. State, local, and tribal officials partner to rescue stranded Clear Lake Hitch. Lake County News, April 30, 2022. https://www.lakeconews.com/news/72411-state-local-and-tribal-officials-partner-to-rescue-stranded-clear-lake-hitch#:~:text=The%20hitch%2C%20a%20large%20minnow%20found%20only%20in,threatened.

Moyle, P.B. 2002. Inland Fishes of California, Revised and Expanded. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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. https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Conservation/Fishes/Special-Concern.

Pfeiffer, J. 2022. Why I am fighting for a fish I have never seen. High Country News. May 25, 2022. https://www.hcn.org/articles/opinion-fish-why-im-fighting-for-a-fish-ive-never-seen.

Rypel, A.L., P. Saffarinia, C.C. Vaughn, L. Nesper, K. O’Reilly, C.A. Parisek, M.L. Miller, P.B. Moyle, N.A. Fangue, M. Bell-Tilcock, D. Ayers, and S.R. David. 2021. Goodbye to “rough fish”: paradigm shift in the conservation of native fishes. Fisheries 46: 605-616 .

Rypel, A.L. 2021. Defending ‘Rough Fish.’ California Water Blog. University of California, Davis, Center for Watershed Sciences. December 19, 2021. https://californiawaterblog.com/2021/12/19/defending-rough-fish/

Taylor, T. L., P. B. Moyle, and D. G. Price. 1982. Fishes of the Clear Lake Basin. Pages 171-223 in P. B. Moyle, ed., Distribution and Ecology of Stream Fishes of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Drainage System, California. Publications in Zoology 115, University of California Press, Berkeley, California.

Thompson, L.C., G.A. Giusti, L.Weber, and R. F. Keiffer. 2013. The native and introduced fishes of Clear Lake: a review of the past to assist with decisions of the future. California Fish and Game 99(1):7-41.

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