California Drought a Sign of What’s to Come

March 19, 2015 | Water in the West | Insights

Janny Choy, Research Analyst, Water in the West


On March 4, 2015, Water in the West hosted a panel of three Stanford experts to discuss the ongoing California drought, including causes, policy implications, and potential responses.

Despite a promising start to the rainy season, dry conditions have prevailed through most of California in the past three months.  A fourth year of drought is more and more likely with each passing day. 

For the second year in a row, Stanford’s Water in the West program convened a California Drought Panel to explore the causes, policy implications, and possible responses to the ongoing drought. The panel underscored that, in important respects, this drought is profoundly different than ones we have faced before, and is a first glimpse into conditions we will face in the future.

Leon Szeptycki, Director of Water in the West, moderated the event which brought together three Stanford experts as panelists: Daniel Swain, Stanford Ph.D. candidate and author of the California Weather Blog; Barton H. “Buzz” Thompson, a leading water law and policy expert, Director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, and Stanford Law Professor; and Tom Zigterman, Associate Director of Water Services & Civil Infrastructure at Stanford University. 

Swain discussed the current state of the drought and its physical causes, including the role of climate change on drought. Thompson focused on how the state, communities, and water managers have coped with the drought to date and potential long-term drought management solutions.  Zigterman shared current and past efforts to sustainably manage Stanford University’s water supply and demand. 

Current conditions

First, some good news: several large storms have bolstered reservoir levels in northern California.  While still not at normal levels, they are better than last year; for example, Lake Shasta, the state’s largest reservoir, is at 58% full, which is 78% of average for this time of year.  

These indicators are, however, more than offset by how little snow is in the Sierra Nevada. “I’ve seen more snow up there in August,” said panelist Daniel Swain.

Recent snow surveys from 103 stations show an average snow-water content of 19% compared to what’s typical for this time of year.

These low snowpack numbers mean that cities and farmers will again face a water shortfall this summer. They also illustrate one of the facets of this drought that is particularly worrisome – our precipitation has fallen mostly as rain rather than snow, due to the extremely warm temperatures California has seen all through the winter.

That is precisely the aspect of this drought that makes it a troubling sign for the future.  A recent Stanford study co-authored by Swain shows that warming temperatures will be a central driver of future droughts.  Warm temperatures exacerbate the effects of dry weather by increasing evaporation, drying soils, and increasing water demand.  In recent years, more and more dry years have been warm.  The study shows that in coming decades, there is virtually a 100 percent chance that dry years will be warm, meaning more frequent and more severe droughts.

Conservation and water reforms

This raises the question whether our current laws, policies, and practices are up to the challenges of the future.  Thompson underscored the importance of charging people the right price for water as a critical step forward to more efficiency and better water management.  Artificially low water prices discourage conservation and are a barrier to water innovation

Raising water rates is difficult everywhere, but maybe more so in California.  Often homeowners and other water users who conserve water in droughts are rewarded with rate increases, because utilities have to charge more per gallon to cover the fixed cost of water infrastructure.  The state’s Proposition 218, which makes it generally harder for local governments to raise fees and taxes, has become a vehicle to challenge innovative tier rate structures designed to encourage water conservation, as illustrated by the ongoing San Juan Capistrano case.

Voluntary water conservation in California is improving, but lagging behind goals.  At the beginning of 2014, Governor Jerry Brown set a voluntary 20% water conservation target for California.  Although largely unmet across the state, it culminated in a 22% conservation rate in December 2014 due to a wet month and reduced outdoor watering.  As Thompson highlighted, Californians have since gotten back to bad habits, with January data showing only a 9% cut in water use statewide. 

As part of the state’s efforts to promote conservation, the State Water Board also mandated monthly water use reporting from utilities across the state.  This publicly available information has provided a much better understanding of urban water use statewide. Efforts such as this to generate better water information, as well as tracking water uses with meters and real-time gages, are essential tools to achieve more efficient water use, according to Thompson. 

Agriculture water users, who collectively account for about 80% of human water use in the state, also have a critical role in conservation, said Thompson.  Many farmers could temporarily fallow land in past droughts, but there has been a substantial increase in permanent and higher-value crops like nut trees and vineyards in recent years, hardening water demand and forcing painful choices to be made when scarcity occurs. 

The $7.5B water bond and the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), both passed in 2014, will be part of the solution in addressing future droughts by providing funding and regulatory authority to manage critical groundwater supplies over the long-term.

Stanford’s water management efforts

Stanford’s water fountains have been dry for more than a year to highlight the severity of the current drought. The campus has undertaken many water conservation and retrofit projects since the 1990s. The latest is a new energy plant that will cut campus water use by 15% once operational later this year.

While many jurisdictions in California are scrambling to survive the current drought, Stanford is faring better than most thanks to steps the campus has taken to diversity its water supply and increase efficiency and conservation long before this drought. 

According to panelist Tom Zigterman, a new energy plant has been constructed and will be operational soon, translating into a 15% water reduction for the campus.  Domestic water use across Stanford declined by about 7% in 2014.

Looking into the near future, the campus is growing, and water use is expected to increase correspondingly. In a sign of increasing drought awareness, Stanford students are petitioning to eliminate unused or underutilized lawns on campus. 

Droughts are a fact of life and planning for it, as Stanford has taken steps to do with its diversified approach, is a must in our arid state.