How bad is water management in California?

by Jay Lund

California’s combination of climate, native ecosystems, and human uses makes water management inherently hard, unsatisfactory, and evolving.  California is doomed to have difficult and controversial water problems. No matter how successful we are.

California is one of the few parts of the world with a Mediterranean climate (Figure 1).  These climates tend to be dry (not much water), attractive places to live and farm (bringing high water demands), with mismatch between wetter winters and dry summer growing seasons.  The scarce water supply in the wrong season for human activities makes human management of water problematic for native ecosystems.

Mediterranean climates are special places, socially, economically, and environmentally with unavoidably challenging water problems.

California’s ongoing drought has provided opportunities to scrutinize its water management.  Droughts are trials that help identify problems and solutions.  The current drought has prompted several water management innovations in California, including state efforts to require local groundwater management, tightening water rights administration, and increases in water prices and urban water conservation.  Every drought is different, affecting a somewhat changed water system which serves a changing society, economy, and ecosystem.  Droughts historically catalyze strategic changes in California’s water management system.

If California is doomed to have hard water problems and unsatisfactory water solutions, how is California doing relative to other parts of the world blessed and burdened with Mediterranean climates.  Table 1 roughly compares the world’s regions with Mediterranean climates in terms of the population they support, economic wealth per capita, size of their agricultural economy, and (very roughly) condition of their native freshwater aquatic ecosystems.

As a person, native fish, or farmer, in which Mediterranean climate would you rather live?

Table 1. Comparison of Water Management Success for the World’s Mediterranean Climates (Population and economic data from  Agricultural economy data from FAO Statistical Pocketbook 2015. Ecosystem assessment is purely subjective.)

Country/ State Population (millions) Wealth (GDP PPP/person) Food Production ($ billion) Native Freshwater Aquatic Ecosystem Condition
California 39 $62,000 $45 Struggling, much diminished
Algeria 39 $13,000 $8 Largely eliminated
Australia 24 $68,000 $25 Substantially eliminated
Chile 18 $22,500 $8 Substantially eliminated
Greece 11 $26,000 $6 Largely eliminated
Israel 8 $36,000 $3 Largely eliminated
Italy 61 $35,600 $29 Largely eliminated
Morocco 33 $7,000 $9 Largely eliminated
S. Africa 54 $12,500 $13 Struggling, much diminished
Spain 46 $43,000 $32 Largely eliminated

California is perhaps the world’s best-performing region with a Mediterranean climate in terms of managing water for both humans and ecosystems.  California can learn from other regions, but is certainly not a laggard in terms of environmental and economic performance among Mediterranean climates.  We do not do as well with water as we would like, and we must find ways to do better, but California nevertheless does relatively well in managing water.

This is not to encourage complacence, but to discourage panic.  There seems little reason to support an overall revolution in most of California water management, despite ongoing needs to make substantial improvements.  California always will need to pay attention to making improvements in how water is managed, to reduce the inherent dissatisfactions of a populous, prosperous, and agriculturally productive region with a dry Mediterranean climate.  Organized and persistent attention with high but realistic expectations has been key to California’s historical success and to continued change and progress.

Further readings

Alexander, B.S., G.H. Mendell, and G. Davidson (1874), Report of the Board of Commissioners on the Irrigation of the San Joaquin, Tulare, and Sacramento Valleys of the State of California, Washington: G.P.O., 1874.

Bonada, N. and V.H. Resh (2013) “Mediterranean-climate streams and rivers: geographically separated but ecologically comparable freshwater systems,” Hydrobiologia, Volume 719, Issue 1, pp 1-29.

Gasith, A. and V. H. Resh (1999), “Streams in Mediterranean Climate Regions: Abiotic Influences and Biotic Responses to Predictable Seasonal Events,” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, Vol. 30: 51-81 (Volume publication date November 1999), DOI: 10.1146/annurev.ecolsys.30.1.51

Hanak, E., J. Mount, C. Chappelle, J. Lund, J. Medellín-Azuara, P. Moyle, N. Seavy (2015), What If California’s Drought Continues?, Public Policy Institute of California, San Francisco, CA, August 19, 2015

Lund, J. California droughts precipitate innovation 21 January 2014,

Mount, J., B. Gray, C. Chappelle, J. Doolan, T. Grantham, and N. Seavy (2016) Managing Water for the Environment During Drought: Lessons from Victoria, Australia, PPIC, San Francisco, CA, June.

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

Underwood, E.C. , J. H. Viers,  K.R., Klausmeyer, R. L. Cox, and M. R. Shaw (2009), “Threats and biodiversity in the mediterranean biome,” Diversity and Distributions, (Diversity Distrib.) (2009) 15, 188–197

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14 Responses to How bad is water management in California?

  1. James says:

    It’s hard to have a lot of confidence in California water management when virtually all local water managers are telling the state water board that they have plenty of water. This doesn’t square with the big picture — diminishing snowpacks and ground subsidence. Now isn’t the time to let up on conservation.

  2. Joseph Rizzi says:

    Water Management? Cries of water shortages when Northern CA reservoirs are full or could have been full if “Water Management” or lack there of did not release the water early, per some unknown outdated rules or politics in promoting water projects. Better question:
    When water is released from reservoirs like Trinity, Shasta, Oroville or Folsom – what is the percentage released for: Environment health, Fish cooling, people down stream, Salt water avoidance, electrical power or other? In other words where are we spending our fresh water?

  3. Steve Macaulay says:

    Good comparisons. From personal experience there are other geographic factors that also come into play. For example, Chile largely has much steeper stream gradients — it is a skinnier and more narrow “California”. That may make Chile’s circumstances either more challenging or perhaps more tragic in terms of impacts on the natural environment.

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  5. Chris Enright says:

    Here is hoping that Mr Rizzi will answer his own question so we can all benefit from the data and his skillful methods. I suspect he will find the task challenging because all of the categories he mentions (and many others) overlap. Another option would be to reference the most recent California Water Plan update where the “fresh water spending” calculation has been carefully considered by the cooperative effort of interested water users for many years. The California Water Plan Update can be found at

    • Joseph Rizzi says:

      Thanks Chris, but the topic is “Water Management” and how reservoirs like Trinity, Shasta, Oroville and Folsom are managed or mismanaged? PPIC recently reported that 71% of water going into the Delta is to hold back salt water intrusion, so out of the 12 sections under the Benicia Bridge if a shipping lock was put in the channel to protect the bridges and the environment from accidents like the Cosco Busan that hit the bay bridge, how much salt water would be blocked? 11 of the 12 sections under the bridge can be left open and since salt water is heavier than fresh water this would decrease the amount of water released at reservoirs to hold back salt water, freeing up more fresh water for the fish, environment and for export.
      1.3 MAF of fresh water is required to hold back salt water pg 39
      12.0 to 48.0 MAF of fresh water enters the Delta (export or Sea)
      1.2 MAF is what cities saved in 2015-2016 water conservation efforts.

      What governs the reservoir managers to release water at one CFS rate verses a different rate? Salt? Are they coordinating their efforts together? Managing our fresh water storage in these reservoirs is extremely important to water shortages.

  6. gymnosperm says:

    The bottom line appears to be that in the oldest Mediterranean agricultural areas the “native freshwater ecosystem” has long since been “largely eliminated”, and a good rule of thumb is that when it comes to swimming pools vs. smelt; the smelt always lose.

    What is the definition of the native freshwater ecosystem? A catalog of all the pre human species from the fresh/saline dispersion zone to the alpine zone?
    What is the criterion for largely eliminated?

    Kudos for a balanced perspective.

    • jaylund says:

      The ecosystem summary here is very rough indeed, but serves to make the points in the piece. A deeper comparison of management of aquatic ecosystems in Mediterranean climates might be quite interesting and useful.

  7. Nana says:

    Something I find very frustrating in so many communities in CA:
    1. Must have front yard landscaping, including a LAWN in some places.
    2. May NOT have front yard edible landscaping in some places (using your yard as a garden so your landscape earns a living & water is not wasted).
    3. Collecting rain water is illegal or must have permit to do it. Expensive permits!
    4. Gray water recycling is either illegal or so costly for permits / installation, it is ridiculous. Collecting gray water is actually simply, not complicated OR expensive (when cities / counties / state / feds get involved & overly excited, $$$$$$$$$!).
    5. Education is lacking. Californians don’t even know how to cut back in simple ways. I know it’s a nationwide problem but here, we need the added education. I’ve been to developing countries where water is scarce so I know how to use every drop efficiently. I wish more people knew about some very simple tips. I’ve educated my mother and she is using some of my tips. But as a state, more public service announcements could go out.

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  9. Bracey says:

    Nana – fortunately your points are mostly invalid now. Laws have been passed in recent months that eliminate the ‘must have’ lawns from homeowner groups, edible gardens are very visible here in San Jose and elsewhere, collecting rainwater and using gray water are now allowed and easily installed. Unfortunately, PSA’s have gone the way of the dodo with ads on TV paid for, not in public interest. The education comes from water districts/companies, volunteers like the master gardener program, garden clubs and societies such as the California Native Plant Society and others. This does not end water wasting though; those with a desire for a Connecticut garden in California will still do so until society changes, a much bigger topic.

  10. Northern California is not part of the Mediterranean climate zone and I assume that some parts are influenced by water coming from areas that also are from a different climate zone. This could skew the picture. Here in Israel there is major damage to aquatic ecosystems but there is an effort to improve this through management.

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