The California Water Model: Resilience through Failure

by Nicholas Pinter, Jay Lund, Peter Moyle

Sacramento 1862

Figure 1.  1861-62 flood in Sacramento.

A review of 170 years of water-related successes in California suggests that most successes can be traced directly to past mistakes.  California’s highly variable climate has made it a crucible for innovations in water technology and policy.  Similar water imperatives have led to advances in water management in other parts of the world.  A close look at California’s water model suggests that “far-sighted incrementalism” is a path to progress.  Given the complexity of water management systems, better scientific information and new policy tools must be developed coherently and collaboratively over time.  A history of learning from previous failures can guide progress towards stable, secure, and resilient water systems worldwide.  This includes learning from other regions and other “water models” – the one option clearly superior to innovating in response to your own mistakes is learning from the errors of others.

This post summarizes an article just published in Hydrological Processes, available from the publisher at (specify Article DOI: 10.1002/hyp.13447) or

Average runoff in California is about 100 km3/yr, but our ecosystems and parts of our economy have been water-limited for decades.  Part of the state’s challenge comes from the variability of its climate.  Average years are unusual, and instead long droughts are punctuated by years of heavy rain or snowmelt and flooding.  Nonetheless, the state has managed to thrive, with 40 million people, agricultural production exceeding $45 billion/year, and the world’s sixth largest economy.  California’s droughts and floods and tension between economic growth and environmental protection have pushed it to develop a diverse toolkit for managing water.

The toolkit consists of an integrated system of infrastructure, laws, institutions, and economic tools. This system, the ”California water model,” has evolved from the first Spanish settlement, through the gold mining era, the ascendancy of agriculture and major cities, to the recent broad mix of objectives that includes strong environmental protection. California has steadily adapted its water management by making mistakes and then learning from those mistakes. In 2017, for example, California avoided major flooding despite the winter being one of the wettest on record and major spillway failures. This was partly due to luck. Reservoirs began low from a drought and winter storms were widely spaced. And most flood infrastructure, particularly the flood bypasses, functioned well. California’s water model offers broad lessons for water managers, particularly in arid regions.

Water in California is framed by the state’s Mediterranean climate.  Summers are long and dry and most precipitation comes during the winter.  Historically, much of the water supply comes from mountain snowmelt (the state’s largest surface reservoir), reservoirs, and groundwater.  In addition to this seasonality, wet years often follow droughts, and vice versa, high variability accentuated by climate change. This near-perpetual alternating water crisis forces Californians to find innovative solutions.  Whereas other US states and other countries may have decades to settle into a false sense of security, California’s hydrologic extremes accelerate innovation.

In 2017, California emerged from a severe five-year drought.  The drought’s effects on agriculture were limited because past droughts had led to more flexible water markets, and farmers greatly expanding groundwater pumping.  Although the state lost about a third of its water supply, agricultural revenue losses were only 3%, and only about 6% of the land was fallowed.  This was in part because producers of lower-value crops sold or transferred their water to producers of higher value crops such as fruit, nuts, and vegetables and to urban water users.  The expanded groundwater pumping raised the visibility and impacts of long-term groundwater problems, which in turn led to passage of California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which will regulate groundwater in the future.

At the other extreme, California also has long history of damaging floods, and flood risk remains widespread today.  Winter storms of 1861-62, turned much of the Central Valley into an inland sea, and frequent levee breaches through the 19th and 20th centuries resulted in high costs to landowners and to the state. In less variable regions, the decades between major floods lead to a “hydro-illogical cycle” in meaningful steps avoid flood damage are forgotten in intervals between disasters.  Early on in California, repeated flooding led to construction of Yolo and Sutter Bypasses, which remain a world model for basin-scale flood management.  A costly 1986 levee failure (and national headlines from New Orleans in 2005) sparked new legislation and investment that has upgraded many California levees from some of the worst in the nation to some of the best.  Repeated flood disasters have kicked the state in the right direction, although much work always remains.  The near-disaster at Oroville Dam in February of 2017, where two spillway failures led to major evacuations, sparked scrutiny and investment at Oroville Dam and for aging water infrastructure across California.  Other regions with large dams, or contemplating new dams, should include Oroville’s lessons in their textbook.

sjv land subsidence

Figure 2.  Unchecked groundwater overdraft has brought ground-surface subsidence.  California’s San Joaquin Valley’s severe subsidence over the past century, continues locally today.  Photo courtesy of Michelle Sneed, US Geological Survey.

Despite successes, California’s water management faces continued challenges.  High on this list, protecting endemic aquatic species remains a vexing challenge.  Despite legal protections under federal and state regulations, California’s native fishes are in rapid decline, with 80% of species on paths towards extinction.  California will need to expand its toolkit – such as by accepting “reconciliation ecology” as a new model for maintaining natural diversity in the face of human pressures and a changing climate.

We suggest that a prerequisite for providing and maintaining healthy aquatic ecosystems and adequate supplies of clean water is “far-sighted incrementalism” among water managers and political leaders.  Incrementalism involves addressing seemingly intractable problems by small forward-looking steps.  “Far-sighted,” at least in California, has involved forward-thinking planning among scientists, managers, and leaders during and after each water-related crisis.  The common response after a damaging flood is reactive – repair the levee breach and rebuild floodplain neighborhoods.  Far-sighted leaders see opportunities in such a crisis to move the system forward, usually incrementally, in a longer-term strategic direction (usually too controversial or difficult to achieve in one step).  California must continue to support organized and independent learning from and adapting to disasters and extremes.

 Lessons for managing water in a thirsty world

By 2050, an additional 2.3 billion people worldwide will face severe water stress, especially in Africa and southern and central Asia.  Already, 2.1 billion people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water. Three out of four jobs worldwide depend upon access to water and water-related services.  Water-limited regions and populations must prepare for changes in water management, addressing existing and emerging weaknesses and learning from mistakes, if possible from other areas, without repeating those errors.

Water management successes often rest on past failures – failures from which scientists, managers, and leaders learn and adapt.  This is especially true for California, where hydrologic variability frequently tests water systems and water policy.  As the world, especially the arid to semiarid world, looks for water solutions, the failures and lessons from California’s turbulent history can provide guidance for future global water resilience.

Nicholas Pinter, Jay Lund, and Peter Moyle are faculty in the Departments of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology (respectively) and work together at the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis.  Email:;;

Further Readings

Auerswald, K, P. Moyle, S.P.Seibert, and J. Geist. 2019. HESS Opinions: Socio-economic and ecological trade-offs of flood management – benefits of a transdisciplinary approach. Hydrology and Earth System Sciences 23: 1035-1044.  Open access.

Dettinger MD, Ralph FM, Das T, Neiman PJ, & Cayan DR. 2011. Atmospheric rivers, floods and the water resources of California.  Water, 3: 445-478.

Faunt, C., and M. Sneed, 2015.  Water availability and subsidence in California’s Central Valley.  San Francisco Estuary & Watershed Science, vol. 3, available from

Grantham, T.E., R. Figueroa, and N. Prat, 2013.  Water management in mediterranean river basins: a comparison of management frameworks, physical impacts, and ecological responses.  Hydrobiologia, 719: 451–482.

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

James, L.A., and M.B. Singer, 2008. Development of the Lower Sacramento Valley Flood-Control System: Historical Perspective, Natural Hazards Review, 9(3): 125-135.

Kelley, R., 1989.  Battling the Inland Sea, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Konar M, Evans TP, Levy M, Scott CA, Troy TJ, Vörösmarty CJ, Sivapalan M. 2016. Water resources sustainability in a globalizing world: who uses the water? Hydrological Processes, 30: 330-336.

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

Lund, J., 2016.  You can’t always get what you want – A Mick Jagger theory of drought management.  California Water Blog,

Moyle, P., R. Lusardi, P. Samuel, and J. Katz. 2017. State of the Salmonids: Status of California’s Emblematic Fishes 2017.  Center for Watershed Sciences, University of California, Davis and California Trout, San Francisco, CA. 579 pp.

Multi-Benefit Flood Protection Project, 2017.  Projects, http://

OECD Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2012.  OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050: The Consequences of Inaction.  OECD Publishing, Paris.

Opperman, J.J, P.B. Moyle, E.W. Larsen, J.L. Florsheim, and A.D. Manfree. 2017 Floodplains: Processes, Ecosystems, and Services in Temperate Regions. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Pinter, N., A. Damptz, F. Huthoff, J.W.F. Remo, and J. Dierauer, 2016.  Modeling residual risk behind levees, Upper Mississippi River, USA.  Environmental Science & Policy, 58, 131-140.

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

Soulsby, C, Dick J, Scheliga B, & Tetzlaff D. 2017. Taming the flood—How far can we go with trees? Hydrological Processes, 31: 3122–3126.

Vahedifard, F., A. AghaKouchak, E. Ragno, S. Shahrokhabadi, and I. Mallakpour, 2017.  Lessons from the Oroville dam.  Science, 355: 1139-1140.

Van Lanen HAJ, et al. 2016. Hydrology needed to manage droughts: the 2015 European case.  Hydrological Processes, 30

WHO & UNICEF World Health Organization and the United Nations Children’s Fund, 2017.  Progress on drinking water, sanitation and hygiene: 2017 update and SDG baselines. Geneva: World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

About jaylund

Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Director, Center for Watershed Sciences University of California - Davis
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4 Responses to The California Water Model: Resilience through Failure

  1. Frances Griffin says:

    Further reading: “Water Heist” by Public Citizen. Required background for understanding our current situation.

  2. waterexpoind says:

    It is not only happen in California, I think this is happen in all over the world. We are all join together our hands to protect the water resources and water for our future generations.

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