By Erik Porse
Drought is a regular event in California. In recent decades, California has experienced five prolonged drought periods (1976-77, 1987-1992, 2007-09, 2011-16, 2020-22). Urban water agencies have responded with investments in supply and demand management measures, which have made California’s cities more resilient to drought effects. What motivated these investments?
Our current habits of water use in California’s cities are shaped by past policies and habits. Prior to 1976, urban water management in California was dominated by actions to increase supplies during the state’s Hydraulic Era (Hanak et al., 2011). In the early 1900’s, California’s developing cities built large infrastructure systems to transport water across long distances. San Francisco’s Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct (1913) and the Los Angeles Aqueduct (1914) were early projects. Later, in 1939, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California completed the Colorado River Aqueduct. Importing water to increase local supplies remained the dominant approach through the 1970s with the completion of California’s State Water Project in 1972. These infrastructure projects grew metropolitan economies and allowed for high rates of water use in cities, which set a bar for perceptions of future efficiency (Cahill & Lund, 2013; Gleick et al., 2003).
By the late 1970s, the era of large engineering projects faded. Drought and land use changes in California instigated broader planning approaches. New sources of water were fewer. The severe drought of 1976–1977 in California spurred statewide actions to reduce demand and diversify supplies (DWR, 1978; Mitchell et al., 2017). By 1977, an estimated 150 communities had implemented mandatory water conservation actions, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area and Sierra Foothills. Communities handed out water conservation kits, and some instituted fines (Agras et al., 1980; Morgan, 1982). Conservation was a public response to drought (DWR, 1978). Monthly water use reporting by agencies to the Department of Water Resources (DWR) through Bulletin 166, which started in 1960, was an important tool that evolved into the Public Water System Statistics (PWSS) after 1980 (it would take until 2013 for regular reporting of urban water use to again became widely and publicly available). In 1978, the California Energy Commission adopted efficiency regulations for toilets and faucets (Vickers, 2010). The regulations were early actions in what became decades of state and federal water efficiency measures (Diringer et al., 2018). After the drought subsided, studies evaluated economic impacts and effects on wastewater systems, while interest grew to understand how utilities could decrease demand (Berk et al., 1993; DeZellar & Maier, 1980; Koyasako, 1980).
California experienced another severe and prolonged drought from 1987-1992. By 1991, many urban water agencies had instituted conservation measures through water use restrictions, price surcharges, prohibitions on wasting water, public education programs, messaging, water use efficiency rebates, and giveaway programs, coupled by supply augmentation through trading (Dixon & Pint, 1996; Moore et al., 1993). Interest grew in recognizing and mitigating economic impacts of drought, spurred by a recession in 1990–1991 (Dixon & Pint, 1996). The drought solidified the types of activities that make up many of today’s utility conservation programs. In 1991, urban water agencies joined with advocacy groups to sign a joint Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) Regarding Urban Water Conservation in California and established the California Urban Water Conservation Council (CUWCC). CUWCC developed a suite of Best Management Practices (BMPs) that became a template for water conservation across the state (CUWCC, 1991). Shortly after, new federal requirements through the Energy Policy Act of 1992 increased efficiency for faucets, showerheads, and toilets (Diringer et al., 2018). Later, in 2007, the BMPs were adopted as a requirement to receive state funding (AWWA, 2017; Mitchell et al., 2017).
California endured another drought from 2007–2009. Many urban areas had limited effects, but broader water policy issues regarding water quality and pumping restrictions from the Southern Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta instigated statewide actions for urban water conservation (Mitchell et al., 2017). Senate Bill (SB) x7-7, the Water Conservation Act of 2009, required DWR to develop water use efficiency targets for agencies to achieve 20 percent savings by 2020 (DWR, 2010). Each agency was given a per capita target and had to submit data on recent demand. The targets established a contemporary baseline for future urban water use efficiency regulations. Requirements for submitting Urban Water Management Plans to DWR created new, openly available data. The SB x7-7 regulations also expanded consideration of Commercial, Industrial, and Institutional properties in conservation programs (DWR and CII Task Force, 2013). Yet, regular reporting of data on consumption remained intermittent and ceased after 2011.
Most Californians living in the state today experienced the 2012–2016 statewide drought. It was severe by comparison to the historical record (Griffin & Anchukaitis, 2014; Lund et al., 2018). The drought brought new policy approaches and, afterwards, a recognition of the potential severity of future conditions. Many urban areas relied on past investments and experienced limited effects in the first several years of drought (Lund et al., 2018). By 2014, California Governor Brown issued a voluntary water use reduction requirement of 20% across all urban areas through Executive Order B-17-2014. Water agencies implemented drought shortage contingency plans, which targeted savings of up to 20%, but through 2014, the Governor’s requested targets were only achieved in a few communities experiencing the most severe effects. In May 2015, with limited snowpack, agricultural fallowing, and drying wells in some small rural communities, the Governor signed Executive Order B-37-16, which required urban areas to reduce demand by 25%. The policy was later implemented with a sliding scale of conservation targets ranging from 4–36%, depending on past conservation actions taken by water agencies (SWB, 2015).
The mandatory restrictions were highly controversial. State regulatory agencies elicited input from water supply agencies, nonprofits, industry organizations, and researchers, which all shaped ultimate implementation of the executive order requirements (DWR, 2016; Mitchell et al., 2017; Talbot, 2019). By 2016, across the state, urban areas were meeting the statewide conservation target. They achieved this by boosting drought messaging and funding rebates to replace turf and indoor fixtures (Mitchell et al., 2017; Pincetl et al., 2019; Quesnel & Ajami, 2017). Municipalities and government agencies also reduced irrigation in public spaces. After the drought proclamation was lifted in 2017, water use increased but did not return to pre-2013 levels. The drought instigated significant legislation for urban water use, including SB 555 to require leak loss reduction programs and AB 1668-SB 606 to set supplier-specific urban water use targets for urban areas throughout the state.
After only a few years, drought conditions returned in 2020-2022. By Summer 2021, Governor Newsom urged urban residents to reduce water use by 15% through voluntary, but not mandatory requirements. California residents responded by reducing water use by 7%. Data collection and standardization efforts for urban water use reporting since 2013 made it easier to track savings. Most urban areas experienced limited effects, drawing on past investments in supply and efficiency measures. Yet, more widespread restrictions were looming if drought continued. For instance, in Spring 2022, parts of urban Los Angeles areas were under severe restrictions. While drought conditions eased in Winter 2022 and restrictions were lifted, without precipitation, the restrictions were set to expand. Widespread simultaneous drought across both California and the greater Colorado River Basin showed the vulnerability of California’s urban areas to severe 21st Century climate conditions. Significant policy changes from the 2020-22 drought are still emerging. For example, legislation to prohibit using potable water for irrigating ornamental (“non-functional”) turf in commercial, industrial, institutional, and multifamily properties may be enacted this year if signed by the Governor (AB 1572). The legislation was supported by major water agencies and emerged from drought response policies.
California’s cities today are better prepared to manage drought. This is the result of regulations, investments, collaboration, technology, and changes in our habits of water use. A severe and prolonged drought could still significantly impact urban areas, but most drought effects in cities today are slow to emerge and hard to evaluate (Lund et al., 2018). Wildfires amplified by drought disrupted urban life and imposed health risks in 2017-2020. Within cities, aging urban tree canopies, dominated by imported species with high water use needs, have suffered. Climate change adaptation for urban water management will increase costs for residents and businesses in California. Urban water agencies will need to improve outreach programs to support urban heat mitigation given changes in landscape irrigation. Finally, as cities have grown more efficient in how they use water, short-term options for future drought mitigation have reduced. Urban water agencies face significant challenges to support livable communities and contribute to climate change goals in California. The next chapter of drought response and resilience for California’s urban water sector is yet to be written.
Erik Porse is the Director of the California Institute for Water Resources and an Associate Cooperative Extension Specialist in the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR).
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 Meteorological analysis identifies slightly different timeframes for several recent drought periods. See, for example, Kam (2019) that describes drought periods from 1975–1978 and from 1987–1994.