Resistance is futile: Inevitable changes to water management in California

Boat slips in Folsom Reservoir in a drought year, 1976. Source: California Department of Water Resources

Boat slips in Folsom Lake in a drought (1976).  The reservoir was at 18 percent of capacity on Tuesday (Jan. 7, 2013). Source: California Department of Water Resources

“Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt” — anonymous

By Jay Lund and Ellen Hanak

Water policy in California has always been about making and resisting change. The gold mining period, the growth of agriculture and cities, and today’s environmental priorities all led to fundamental changes in water and land management, law and regulation. These changes were driven by environmental degradation and the evolution of California’s economic structure and societal priorities. Change has rarely happened quickly, and it has usually been controversial (Hundley 2001; Pisani 1983; Hanak et al. 2011).

Additional changes are on the horizon, driven by large, long-term physical processes such as sea level rise, climate warming, land subsidence, depletion of groundwater and accumulations of salts and nitrate in groundwater. Other drivers include further introductions of invasive species and the continuing evolution of California’s economic structure and governing institutions.

California water policy and management will need to prepare for these seeming inevitabilities and find solutions that support a strong economy and a healthy environment, while easing transitions for vulnerable groups.

Here is our list of 10 changes to come:

June 2004

Levee break at Jones Tract island in the Delta, June 3, 2004. Source: California Department of Water Resources

1.  Parts of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta will permanently flood. Land subsidence, sea level rise, increasing seepage and earthquakes — combined with limited agricultural value and high repair costs — make the permanent flooding of many of the most subsided islands in the central and western Delta seemingly inevitable. Public subsidies for Delta levees can reduce this risk for some areas, but it is unrealistic to expect enough state subsidies to maintain all Delta islands (Lund 2011; Suddeth et al. 2010; Mount and Twiss 2005). This change will cause some localized economic hardship and create new recreational opportunities (Medellín-Azuara et al. 2012).

2.  Reduced diversions of water from the Delta also seem inevitable. Greater environmental flow requirements are already reducing water available for agricultural and urban uses. New instream flow requirements and changes in climate seem likely to further reduce water diversions. This change will affect not only Delta water exporters – the current focus of policy actions – but also upstream and within-Delta diversions. [(Upstream diverters remove twice the water from the Delta as exporters and Delta water users combined (Lund et al. 2010)]. Reduced Delta diversions will significantly affect agricultural and urban water users and water management statewide.

Photo by Chris Austin

Irrigated vineyards in San Joaquin Valley backdropped by pipes carrying water over the Tehachapi Mountains to Southern California. Photo by Chris Austin

3.  The Tulare Basin and San Joaquin River regions will have less irrigated agriculture. The Central Valley south of the Delta is a vast and highly productive agricultural region that substantially lives on borrowed water. Local inflows supply only about two-thirds of the 15.3 million acre-feet (maf) that the Valley consumes annually, mostly for crops. The balance comes from Delta imports (4 maf/yr) and groundwater overdraft [(1-2 maf/yr — by far the most overdraft in California) (Hanak et al. 2011)]. (About 2.7 maf/yr of fairly saline drainage water and rare flood waters leave the region from the San Joaquin River, whose natural outflow would be about 6 maf annually.) Long-term reductions in groundwater overdraft, Delta imports and San Joaquin River diversions could reduce water availability to this region by 2-5 maf/year, requiring the permanent fallowing of up to 1-2 million acres of this region’s 5 million irrigated acres. Some of this land will leave agricultural production for other reasons: Up to about 500,000 acres lack good drainage and are prone to salinization (USDOI 1990a, 1990b), and continued urbanization will further reduce farm acreage (Teitz et al. 2005). Although shifts to higher value crops (especially orchards) will likely maintain absolute growth in agricultural revenues and profits, some communities will be hard-hit by these transitions (Medellin-Azuara et al. 2011).

4.  Urban areas will use less water per capita, reuse more wastewater and capture more stormwater. Growing supply risks and higher costs will drive reductions in urban water use and efforts to capture more local supplies. Urban conservation potential is illustrated by Australian cities, which use much less water than California, while sustaining a similar economy, culture, and climate (Cahill and Lund 2013). Regulations and pricing will help motivate this transformation. Although not costless, this is the easiest change on our list. These adaptations in urban water management will improve urban water supply reliability, and help reduce some other water challenges in California by freeing up some water for agricultural and environmental uses. But not all actions are equally effective everywhere. Water conservation, reuse and stormwater capture will be more effective in coastal urban areas, with effective conservation in inland areas focusing on reductions in landscaping irrigation (Hanak et al. 2011; Ragatz 2013).

Delta smelt (Hypomesus transpacificus) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Delta smelt, a threatened species. Source: Wikimedia Commons

5.  Some native species will become unsustainable in the wild despite protective efforts. Changes in the climate, combined with continued stress from human water and land management and the dilution of wild genetic stock by hatchery fish and invasive species, will make survival of some native fish species unsustainable in the wild — despite concerted efforts to improve their conditions (Moyle et al. 2013). The entire range of native plant and animal species in California faces similar risks (Barbour and Kueppers 2012). Not all can be expected to survive. This threat poses immense challenges for our endangered species laws and their implementation (Hanak et al. 2011, 2013).

6.  Funding for water system solutions will become even more local and regional. Many local and regional water systems benefitted from state bond funds passed in the 2000s, and many water managers look back with nostalgia to the heavy federal subsidies for water infrastructure that largely ended by the 1980s. Budget problems are likely to further curtail state and federal funding for water problems in the years to come. Federal and state agencies also have diminishing institutional capability for water system planning. Local and regional agencies will be the most motivated to address and fund most water problems, and also the most capable. This change spells a return to the dominant historical pattern in American and Californian water management (Lund 2006; Hanak et al. 2011, 2012).

7.  State and federal regulations will increasingly drive water management. Water rights, public health and environmental regulations are under state and federal authority, and will remain important even though state and federal planning and funding declines. Making these regulations more efficient, effective and supportive of local and regional management to further both local objectives and statewide interests in public health and environmental protection is a major challenge. Defining more positive and effective forms and goals for environmental regulation will be a controversial necessity (Hanak et al. 2011, 2013).


 One in 10 people living in California’s most productive farming areas is at risk of exposure to harmful levels of nitrate contamination in their drinking water, according to a recent study by the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. 

8.  Groundwater in many agricultural areas will be increasingly contaminated by nitrate. Modern agriculture applies large quantities of nitrogen fertilizer, much of which enters groundwater as nitrate, a threat to safe drinking water. Although fertilizer application efficiency is improving, farmers often cannot reduce nitrate discharges enough while maintaining profitable farming operations. And even if all nitrate leaching from agriculture ended today, decades of past discharges would continue to flow towards drinking water wells for decades to come. This problem is not unique to California, and it is especially worrisome for safe drinking water in small, low-income rural communities. Addressing this problem should be a focus for state and county governments (Harter et al. 2012).

Source: California Department of Water Resources

Source: California Department of Water Resources

9.  California’s groundwater will become more tightly and formally managed. The same economic and environmental pressures that have led to tighter management and accounting of surface water in California will lead to more formalization of groundwater rights and management. Following decades of legal negotiations among users, aquifers in southern California and Silicon Valley are mostly adjudicated with formal pumping rights or managed by special districts with pumping fees (Blomquist 1992). Local efforts elsewhere are slowly moving towards more formal management (Nelson 2011). More defined groundwater rights will be a long and cumbersome process unless state court and groundwater-rights procedures are strengthened and streamlined. Because pumped groundwater ultimately reduces surface water flows in most places, groundwater use rights will ultimately be tied to surface water rights and environmental impacts, as they are in some other states such as Colorado (Lund and Harter 2013). In the end, all parties will be more secure in their rights, but the transition will lead to reductions in pumping or costs for supply augmentation for some areas.

10.  The Salton Sea will be largely abandoned by humans, fish and waterfowl. Every year, 4 million tons of salt enter the Salton Sea and do not leave, raising the sea’s salinity over time. Today the Salton Sea is 25 percent saltier than seawater and is becoming uninhabitable for more forms of life (Bali, undated). It is also shrinking, creating regional air quality problems from exposed dust (Fulton 2013; Sculley 2002). A proposed $9 billion solution seems unlikely to receive the state and federal funding needed to make it happen (CRA 2007). The growing value of water for southern Californian and other southwestern cities and for wetlands for migratory waterfowl elsewhere on the Colorado River will encourage the transfer of more water out of the Salton Sea basin, with increased irrigation efficiencies (as now planned) and perhaps also more farmland fallowing. Local beneficiaries of the Sea, particularly for recreation and air quality, will face challenges regarding the reasonable use of these waters and will likely have to help finance any solutions. Much of the Salton Sink – the dry lakebed that existed before the Salton Sea was formed by Colorado River flooding in the early 20th century – will be restored (SDSU Center for Inland Waters).

Photo: Chris Austin

The Salton Sea. Photo by Chris Austin

Most of these changes will be accompanied by prolonged angst, as well as studies, controversies and expense. After all, the details of how each change is managed are worth millions of dollars to individual stakeholder groups. Forward-looking adaptive actions are likely to reduce the pain and improve the prospects for water supporting the kind of society, economy and environment that Californians desire. That will require facing change head on and planning for the inevitable, rather than wishfully thinking that California can avoid change.

Jay Lund is Director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences and Ellen Hanak is Senior Fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California.  Thomas Harter, Richard Howitt, Jeffrey Mount and Peter Moyle of the Center also contributed to this article.

Further reading

Bali, K.M. (undated), Salton Sea and Salinity, Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of California, Oakland, CA.

Barbour, E. and L.M. Kueppers (2012), Conservation and management of ecological systems in a changing CaliforniaClimatic Change (2012) 111:135–163

Blomquist, W. (1992), Dividing the Water: Governing Groundwater in Southern California, ICS Press, Richmond, CA.

Cahill, R. and J.R. Lund (2013), Residential Water Conservation in Australia and CaliforniaJournal of Water Resources Planning and Management, ASCE, Vol. 139, No. 1, Jan./Feb., pp. 117-121.

California Resources Agency (2007), Salton Sea Ecosystem Restoration Program: Preferred Alternative Report and Funding Plan, Sacramento, CA

Fulton, R. (2013), Impact of receding Salton Sea unknownCalifornia Health Report, Jan. 29, 2013

Hanak et al., (2013), Stress Relief: Prescriptions for a Healthier Delta Ecosystem, Public Policy Institute of California, San Francisco, CA, 32 pp., April 2013

Hanak et al., (2012), Water and the California Economy, Public Policy Institute of California, San Francisco, CA, 30 pp., 2012

Hanak et al., (2011), Managing California’s Water: From Conflict to Reconciliation, Public Policy Institute of California, San Francisco, CA, 500 pp., February 2011

Harter et al. (2012), Addressing Nitrate in California’s Drinking Water with a Focus on Tulare Lake Basin and Salinas Valley Groundwater, Report for the State Water Resources Control Board Report to the Legislature. Center for Watershed Sciences, University of California, Davis. 78 p.

Hundley, N., Jr. 2001. The Great Thirst. Californians and Water: A History. Berkeley: UC Press

Lund, J. and T. Harter, California’s groundwater problems and prospects, California, Jan. 30, 2013

Lund, J., Sea level rise and Delta subsidence—the demise of subsided Delta islands,, March 9, 2011

Lund, J. et al., (2010), Comparing Futures for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, February

Lund, J. (2006), Most Excellent Integrated Water Management from California, in Operating Reservoirs in Changing Conditions, ASCE, Reston, VA, pp. 196-204, August

Medellín-Azuara, J. et al., , Transitions for the Delta Economy, Public Policy Institute of California, San Francisco, CA, 62 pp., 2012

Medellín-Azuara, J., R.E. Howitt, D.J. MacEwan and J.R. Lund (2011), Economic impacts of climate-related changes to California agricultureClimatic Change (2011) 109 (Suppl 1):S387–S405

Mount, J. and Twiss, R. (2005), Subsidence, sea level rise, and seismicity in the Sacramento-San Joaquin DeltaSan Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science, 3(1)

Moyle P.B., J.D. Kiernan, P.K. Crain, and R.M. Quinones. 2013. Climate Change Vulnerability of Native and Alien Freshwater Fishes of California: A Systematic Assessment Approach, PLoS One, Vol. 8, No. 5

Nelson, Rebecca (2011), Uncommon Innovation: Developments in Groundwater Management Planning in California, Water in the West Working Paper 1, Water in the West Program, Stanford University, California, 43 pp., March 2011

Pisani, D. 1984. From the Family Farm to Agribusiness: The Irrigation Crusade in California, 1850–1931. Berkeley: University of California Press

Ragatz, R.E. (2013), California’s water futures:  How water conservation and varying Delta exports affect water supply in the face of climate change, MS Thesis, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of California – Davis, CA

Sculley, B. (2002), The Potential For Fugitive Dust Problems at The Salton Sea If Water Levels Are Lowered Significantly From Current Conditions, Summary of a Salton Sea Science Office Workshop, La Quinta, California, April 3-4, 2002. Final Panel Report On Fugitive Dust Issues, 58 pp., Sept. 19, 2002

Suddeth, R., J.F. Mount and J.R. Lund, Levee decisions and sustainability for the Sacramento San Joaquin Delta, San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science, Vol. 2, 23pp, August 2010

SDSU Center for Inland Waters, Salton Basin-Colorado Delta Mothersite, San Diego State University

Teitz, M.B., C. Dietzel and W. Fulton (2005), Urban Development Futures in the San Joaquin Valley, Public Policy Institute of California,  February 2005

USDOI (1990a), San Joaquin Valley Drainage Program, Draft Final Report, US Department of Interior and California Resources Agency, June 1990

USDOI (1990b), A Management Plan For Agricultural Subsurface Drainage and Related Problems on the Westside San Joaquin Valley, Final Report of the San Joaquin Valley Drainage Program, US Department of Interior and California Resources Agency, September 1990


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22 Responses to Resistance is futile: Inevitable changes to water management in California

  1. Really excellent. As a UCD alum, working in British Columbia on water policy, I really get a lot out of these blogs and what we can learn for our own watersheds.

  2. Joe Novitski says:

    Congratulations to two speakers of truth in a water debate best analyzed by game theorists, since positions do not change.

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  5. dzetland says:

    Great post (will link). I’d add/clarify (4) with “people will pay more for water services.” It’s a fact that we need to include, esp. as it wont’ be too painful (relative to the alternatives).

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  8. Tremendous post and tremendously helpful! Thank you. I’ve only been here in the Bay Area for 4 years, but as a nature lover and naturalist, I have been trying to learn and understand the ecosystem of this beautiful area, and beautiful state I have come to call home. The drought that is upon us really brings home the importance of the changes this article points to. Thanks for the education.

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  11. Laura Smallhouse says:

    Dr. Lund and Dr. Hanak,

    Given the current condition of the California State Water Project and the recent announcement that it will be unable to make any deliveries except to maintain public health and safety, this is a provocative and timely post discussing changes needed for California water policy. As a civil environmental engineering student at the University of Southern California, I am deeply invested in the importance of water management, treatment, and distribution in California. I strongly agree with all of the water projections and transformations discussed in the post. It is evident that the agriculture industry in particular will be heavily affected by necessary changes in water distribution policies. The irrigation industry is currently the source of many of the issues California is facing with its water resources such as groundwater over drafting and contamination. I agree that Tulare Basin and San Joaquin River regions need to transition towards a higher value crop market and develop new, more efficient irrigations systems. Additionally, modern agriculture supplies need to be altered to have much lower nitrogen concentrations with more resourceful application methods. I believe your prediction that funding and support from the county and state governments will be crucial in order to provide a smooth transition for these small rural economies and communities. Other policy changes I see necessary described in the article were more stringent water consumption regulations and increased funding for water treatment solutions and their implementation.

    Although the focus of the article was on water policy changes to water management in the near future for California, I was surprised you did not discuss wastewater reuse options or new resource technologies such as desalination. Each option has its pros and cons, and I am curious as to which you think will be the most sustainable and efficient solution for California. I see direct potable reuse as the best route to be taken. Although the process is controversial now by a large portion of society in the United States, factors such as climate change and population growth constantly deplete the limited water resources available for use. The NeWater system used in Singapore is an example of successful direct potable wastewater reuse that has many components California could adopt in the future. Artificial groundwater recharging is another option that has become more popular recently and provides a barrier for salt-water intrusion, but it is not as economically efficient. The Groundwater Replenishment System in Orange County has lead the forefront of indirect wastewater reuse, and I think needs to be further invested in and developed by the state government. Desalination is probably the most aesthetically pleasing option to the general public, but has various negative environmental effects and too costly. Wastewater reuse needs to be promoted, funded, and supported through California policies. I also see the need for water resource management concepts to be incorporated in the education system. The combination of a movement towards wastewater reuse and a more educated public will provide a large stepping-stone towards a viable for water resources.

    • jaylund says:

      An interesting question. Thanks.

      Wastewater reuse will be helpful and could become a substantial part of some urban water supplies, probably less than 20% unless we go to potable reuse. But urban use is only about 20% of all human water use in California. Even with potable reuse and much more favorable economics, wastewater physically cannot supply more than about 50% of urban use, because of high evapotranspiration losses from urban landscapes.

      We engineers love technology and have great hopes for it, but the use of technology is limited by economics, physics, and often other things. So I don’t think wastewater reuse or ocean desalination will fundamentally change the conclusions in the blog. (Of course, the astronauts recycle about 100% of their water use, because the cost of bringing additional water is $10,000/lb or about $80,000/gallon.)

  12. Tom Maxwell says:

    The discussions about more (added) water storage bring to mind that California is not always in drought. In fact, considerable flooding is not uncommon. California must invest now to take advantage of the next El Niño type event (the atmospheric river). Aquariusradar (the microwave heating of rain clouds) can help store water. Can’t make it rain more. Can move rainfall from flooded zone to nearby storage. Why are some of California’s best scientific minds spending time and money finding if water exists on distant planets. Let them use the technologies available to help the problem at hand; they can return to the stars after helping here on Earth.

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  14. Roger Claytor says:

    I’m just a man in the street and I do not even live in the US but it occurs to me that if humans have the power to move mountains converting seawater to fresh should not be beyond the realms of possibility. The problem is the cost, big deal, consider WW2 when America shifted to a war footing, miracles were achieved. If similar effort was devoted to desalination America would have no water problems for the foreseeable future. It’s all a question of will, ours over nature.

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  18. Jim Kelly says:

    As I read this article in 2016, it is still spot on. Great read. Next question: “We have met the enemy, and he is us”, so how to move to solutions now?

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