California’s Driest Year on Record: Why we Must all Plan Better to Ensure Long-Term Water Supplies

California is in the midst of the third year of drought, and by many indicators 2013 was one of the driest years on record. In Los Angeles for example, 2013 proved to be the driest year in the 136 years that the City has weather records. However, judging by some recent comments from major municipal water providers in Southern California, there seems to be little concern about providing water to our citizens regardless of drought conditions. In this piece, I would like to address these comments and lay out the reasons why I am concerned that our Southern California water districts do not seem concerned in a time of drought to do more to protect long-term water supplies.

I got the idea to write this piece when I read an article in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune entitled Invisible crisis: Few feel effects of L.A.’s driest year on record. You can read the full article here. In the article, the author writes about how Los Angeles and Southern California are facing the third straight year of drought and how 2013 was on track (and eventually did confirm) as the driest year on record in Los Angeles. Considering these statistics, you would think that the article would focus on the need to conserve water in a time of drought. However, the quotes that the author selected from leaders in the water industry in Southern California painted a much rosier picture. The article highlighted Metropolitan Water District’s Assistant General Manager Debra Mann, stating,

“Indeed, the nation’s largest water wholesaler, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, predicts even with more dry years, it will not deny any of its 28 member agencies a drop of water in 2014 or in the years to come. MWD serves cities from the Tehachapi Mountains to the Mexican border. ‘We plan to meet all demands that our member agencies will have for 2014. We don’t need to have a shortage reduction or a shortage call for the next few years,’ said Debra Man, MWD assistant general manager and chief operating officer.”

I am concerned that districts like MWD are underestimating the potential consequences for long-term drought. We have seen this scenario play out before in California, and periods of drought are the most important times to get people thinking about water conservation measures. Consider, for example, the actions that the Santa Clara Valley Water District (SCVWD) took in 2009 to try to curb a severe drought. The SCVWD serves the entire Silicon Valley, including the cities in which tech titans Apple, Google, Cisco and many others call home. In an effort to make its citizens conserve water after three years of severe drought, the water district tried to enact a “mandatory” 15% water usage reduction for every citizen. The water district quickly found out how little power it had to force citizens to conserve. The district had no legal authority to raise rates on water without the consent of the people, and it could not force the retailers to which it sold water to follow the rationing “mandate”. In an attempt to coax the citizens into considering water rationing, the district spent $1 million of taxpayer dollars in a public affairs outreach program on the importance of rationing water in times of drought.

The region survived the water crisis, but the district had a short memory in remembering the importance of conserving water regardless of the supply. In 2010 the drought finally broke when California experienced an above-average snowfall. The SCVWD staff recommended keeping the water rationing measures in place, but the elected Board of Directors decided to lift the restrictions in a 5-2 vote. According to a June 16th, 2010 San Jose Mercury News article, the Board worried that the population would “go back to its old ways” of using unlimited amounts of water, but they could not force rationing on the population in times of plenty. One of the water retailers in the region explained had an intriguing explanation as to why the Board rejected the mandatory water rationing.  “Our reservoirs are as full as we can let them get,” said Charles Hardy, a spokesman for the East Bay Municipal Utility District, which serves 1.3 million people. “Our board basically said if there’s no reason for restrictions, why are you going to ask people to conserve? Because when you really need them to conserve you want them to conserve.”

I believe that the above example shows just how short-sighted these policies are. In many parts of California, our population relies on incredible amounts of imported water that is both unreliable and costly to transport. A few weeks ago, I discussed in a posting (you can view here) that the California Department of Water Resources initially plans to deliver only 5% of entitlements to the users of the State Water Project. To put how much of an impact this determination could have on water supplies, consider the case of Metropolitan Water District. MWD’s full entitlement of the State Water Project is 1,911,500 acre feet. If the 5% delivery projection holds, MWD will receive just 95,575 acre feet, a reduction of 1,815,925 acre feet. You can see all of the proposed delivery amounts for the 29 State Water Contractors here.

These potential delivery figures are sobering. While I am not advocating panic, I am advocating more prudent planning and conservation. It is laudable that MWD and many agencies have put in place water storage systems, but we cannot act flippant towards the real risk of prolonged drought. With such a potential massive reduction in water deliveries and no idea when the drought will end, how can Metropolitan Water District and other State Water Contractors be certain that it will not deny any of its members “a drop of water” in the years ahead? Metropolitan Water District certainly has storage facilities to protect against drought, but these resources are not infinite. And the storage facilities require some rainfall and deliveries from the State Water Project (SWP) to replenish them long-term. But we can’t control the weather, and we know that a host of increased environmental regulations limits the supply that the SWP can deliver. That is why I believe MWD should look at a combination of increased storage, new supply and citizens’ water conservation to get us through the prolonged drought. Without a comprehensive approach, I don’t believe that water suppliers like MWD can be so completely sure about their long-term ability to deliver 100% of its member agencies’ desired demands.

This entry was posted in Storage, Supply Reliability on by .

About Jeff Simonetti

Jeff Simonetti is the Vice President of Public Affairs at the Capitol Core Group and provides project management, business development, and policy/lobbying expertise to a variety of federal, state and local clients. During his tenure at Capitol Core, Jeff has among other projects helped a renewable energy company to secure authorizing resolutions in cities across Southern California. Prior to joining Capitol Core Group, Jeff was a Vice President at the Kosmont Companies, a real estate and economic development consulting firm. At Kosmont, Jeff was the project lead for cities looking to implement financing strategies such as Enhanced Infrastructure Financing Districts (EIFDs) and other post-redevelopment funding mechanisms. He also was the project manager for the Economic Development element of the Fontana General Plan Update. Jeff gained significant state and local government affairs experience as the Government Affairs Director at the Building Industry Association (BIA) of Southern California’s Baldy View Chapter. During his tenure at the BIA, he helped to found the annual San Bernardino County Water Conference, an event that gathers over 400 elected officials and business leaders in the region to discuss the pressing water policy issues that affect the community.

15 thoughts on “California’s Driest Year on Record: Why we Must all Plan Better to Ensure Long-Term Water Supplies

  1. NormD

    Conservation will help, but…

    If agriculture uses 80% of the water in CA, I fail to see how if the remaining users cut their use even by 20% this will have a meaningful impact on the CA water problem. Even a 50% reduction would only have a minor effect.

    Conservation seems like a feel-good, “I’m helping” kind of response.

    I would assume that as a blog dedicated to water resources your approach would be:

    How much water does CA use in a year.
    Assume some mix of wet/dry years
    How much water storage do we need to insure that the water banked in the wet years will carry us through the dry years.
    Do we have sufficient storage capacity?
    What is the most efficient way to store this water (new dams, raise existing dams, import water, store water underground, etc.)
    Of course, this is complicated be the fact that water use/storage are distributed, but you know far more about this than I do.

    1. WayneLusvardi

      Here is what the California Dept. of Water Resources reports about water use.

      Agriculture has historically used 75% of system water (not all precipitation) in a DRY YEAR. In a NORMAL YEAR ag uses 41%. In a wet year ag uses about 20%.

      But those are old percentages.

      In the Central Valley Project 58% of the San Joaquin River water has been diverted for salmon runs by court orders and regulations. So if in a dry year ag typically uses, say, 75% of the water but 58% has been diverted to the environment, that only leaves 18% for ag. In reality, the Bureau of Reclamation is only allocating 5% water deliveries to ag this year!

      It is difficult to determine how much water supply California has because the only statistic kept by the water bureaucracies is the easiest one to report: how full are the reservoirs. But that tells us nothing. What we want to know is how many years of water is stored for a wet, dry, and average year? But that is more difficult to calculate because the metric for farm water is acre feet, the metric for municipal and industrial is acre feet or gallons, and the metric for wildlife Refuge is whatever they can get away with. The limit in the San Joaquin for diversions for fish is supposed to be 800,000 acre feet but has run as high as 1.2 million acre feet.

      Efficient way to store water is conjunctive use whereby raw water is shipped to end users and they park the water in their own underground basins rather than in, say, Lake Castaic where some of it is lost to evaporation. But the bureaucracies don’t like conjunctive use because it reduces their fiefdoms.

      We no longer have sufficient storage capacity given that so much water has now been diverted to the environment.

      I have an article pending at which will be reporting on how the drought has been worsened by failing to use a fail safe drought planning principle. If courts and legislatures are going to divert farm water for salmon runs, they are going to have to mitigate the farm water loss by first building new replacement water storage for farmers. Otherwise when a prolonged drought hits the farmers are wiped out, groundwater basins are depleted causing land subsidence, and the fish species end up with not enough water anyway. It is a thoroughly politicized and dysfunctional system of water distribution.

      1. NormD


        I guess I am confused by your percents. I would assume that a city or farm wants a fixed amount of water, not a percent of some amount that happens to be available. Environmental uses are just more demand. A planner adds up these demands and then tries to balance this with supply and adds storage as a buffer to handle wet/dry years. If supply/demand don’t balance then something has to give. Perhaps you create a market a sell water to those that most value it. Perhaps farmers switch crops. Perhaps you add storage.

        I have no idea why fish need 800K AF one year and 1.2M AF another year.

        Of course, it would not surprise me to find that politicians/judges don’t consider the effects of their laws/judgements.

        1. WayneLusvardi

          The percentages I gave you are mixed up.

          First you have to understand the pool of water that comprises the total.
          It could be all:
          a. Precipitation
          b. All system raw water (ag, municipal & industrial, and refuge)
          c. All conveyed water
          d. All stored water
          d. All treated water

          Then there are irrigation districts. So for the San Joaquin River Valley, the hardest hit by drought, the 100% is only for that district.

          Each irrigation district is added up to call it total system water but in reality each irrigation district’s water is not available to the whole system. So when you see those visual of reservoirs and the capacity in acre feet, the amount of water for 15 year average, and the percentage full, that water may not be available to Los Angeles or Santa Barbara.

          Like I said the Bureau of Reclamation keeps lazy stats.

          The answer is we the public don’t know how much water is available in reality.

          When I call government agencies for water storage statistics they refer to statistics that they keep that are not divulged to the public.

          You have to remember what sociologist of bureaucracy Max Weber nearly a century ago: the defining characteristic of a bureaucracy is the capability to maintain a big secret.

          I worked for one of the largest water districts in California for two decades and the engineers used to have an inside joke that any of the numbers that management used were not the same numbers engineers gave them.

          Which is best for California? New storage, conservation, water banking, water renting, etc? It depends on cultural values that are translated into political values. Conservation is great if you want higher water rates and less use. Water storage is great if you want low water rates and more usage. The Knowledge Class likes Conservation and the Business Class storage. Then there is always the option of just fallowing farm fields.

      2. WayneLusvardi

        I am aware the percentages don’t add up.

        Actually forecasting acre feet of allocation is another issue.

        The San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement Agreement and the San Joaquin River Restoration Act HR 146 (Feinstein) are so one-sided with no flexibility for farmers in droughts and so short-sided as to be oblivious to droughts.

        I will try and post a link to my pending article on the issue on this blog (if the editor doesn’t remove half the text as sometimes occurs).

    2. Marta Weismann

      I see your suggested analysis as the set of questions the water planners must consider.

      As for conservation … I agree that conservation is not THE solution — but it is appropriate to consider and promote it as part of a multi-faceted strategy. Conservation (aka demand reduction), along with storage, are what have So. Cal in position to continue full deliveries, even with a drought now officially declared. (You can read more about this at the Journal of Water

      1. NormD

        I just want conservation to make sense and not just be about symbolism. Lets say that installing low flush toilets in every house in the state would save 1K AC per year. Lets say the state needs 1M AF per year (made up numbers) . Clearly installing the toilets does nothing to address the problem (not to mention the huge cost). If, on the other hand, the toilets save 500K AF per year, then obviously it is worth considering them. If the state adds additional storage to make 1M AF available, and the toilets only save 1K AF then this additional storage can easily handle normal toilets.

        At our house, my guess is that most water is used watering outside plants. If I wanted/needed to reduce water usage, should I spend thousands of dollars and countless hours to replace our toilets or spend 30 secs and turn the seasonal adjustment on our sprinklers down to 90%?

    3. Jeff Simonetti Post author

      Hi Norm,
      I chose to focus on the urban water usage in this piece, but you are right. All water users in California and the Western United States for that matter have to make a concerted effort to cut back on water usage. I chose to focus on the urban side of the equation to respond to a few articles that focused on the issue of drinking water supplies in the drought. But I am not being flippant towards the importance of all water users focusing on reducing usage in times of drought. Storage is another really important component that I wanted to highlight, because increased storage can help us to plan better for longer drought cycles. And that is a solution from which both urban and agricultural users can reap the benefits.

  2. WayneLusvardi

    Very apropos comments. I remember a drought in the 1980’s that lasted 7 years (?) in Southern California. I don’t think the SWP/CVP combined has 7 years of water storage backlogged.

    1. Jeff Simonetti Post author

      Thank you for your comment, Wayne. The article had good timing too in relation to the Governor’s declaration of a drought emergency. Again, I am not advocating panic. But I am advocating that we think more long-term about a comprehensive water conservation strategy.

      1. WayneLusvardi



  3. WayneLusvardi

    Very apropos comments. I remember a drought in the 1980’s that lasted 7 years (?) in Southern California. I don’t think the SWP/CVP combined has 7 years of water storage backlogged.

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