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UC Davis Magazine

By Cody Kitaura – September 15, 2021 – Environment, Features, The Big Question

Who is to Blame for California’s Drought?

Social media users are playing the blame game when it comes to California’s drought. Read enough comments online and you’ll see many similar responses blaming the state government for its management of water: California should have more water storage. California dumps water into the ocean. Northern California sends too much water to Southern California. UC Davis experts said those assertions are incorrect.

“The characterization that this is just government malfeasance is wildly inaccurate and unfair, and misses the key points,” said Richard Frank, professor of environmental practice and director of the California Environmental Law and Policy Center at the UC Davis School of Law.

While some criticisms that appear frequently on social media have a basis in reality, others are completely untrue, Frank and other UC Davis experts said. They provided responses to common drought questions.

Why don’t we just build more dams?

Shouldn’t the state have seen the current drought coming and planned with more storage? Of course, more storage could help, but all the obvious places to build dams were turned into reservoirs years ago, Frank said. The state has more than 1,500 reservoirs, and each remaining additional option is more expensive and less effective than the last, he said.

Jay Lund, co-director for the Center for Watershed Sciences and a distinguished professor of civil and environmental engineering, agreed. “You can get some more water from building more reservoirs, but you don’t get much and it’s very expensive,” Lund said.

Besides, none of that matters when the storage we do have is running dry (Lake Oroville, the state’s second-largest reservoir, last month deactivated its hydroelectric power plant because of the low water levels for the first time ever), so we should work harder to conserve, Frank said.

“There’s not enough water to fill the existing water infrastructure,” he said. “It’s not just a matter of readjusting expectations among water users — we have to redouble our efforts to conserve and use water more efficiently.” He pointed to more efficient farm irrigation and drought-resistant urban landscaping as two possible ways to save more.

Lake Oroville was reduced to a mere trickle by drought in July 2021. Kelly M. Grow/California Department of Water Resources

Are we dumping water into the ocean?

Then-president Donald Trump made headlines in October when he said the state was wasting countless gallons of water by dumping it into the Pacific Ocean “to take care of certain little-tiny fish.”

The state does release water into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, an estuary where salt water from the sea mixes with fresh water from Sierra snowpack runoff. Water from the delta is used for irrigation and drinking water, and if too little freshwater is present, then seawater would fill the gaps.

“If you stopped allowing some fresh water to migrate, what you would have is salt water,” Frank said. “The water that is diverted would be salt water, and it would be unfit to drink and unfit to irrigate crops with.”

Water released into the delta also helps wildlife like endangered salmon, steelhead and others — but those animals are the first to suffer in a drought. “This year most of the salmon stocks are going to perish and not be able to spawn,” Frank said. Karrigan Börk, an associate director at the Center for Watershed Sciences and an acting professor at the School of Law, said droughts can do quick and lasting damage to wildlife populations.

“You can fallow a field for a year, but if fish are unsuccessful for a year, you can lose those populations pretty quickly,” he said. Lund said fish are likely suffering more than farmers and ranchers, who tend to have other options.

The completed temporary emergency drought barrier for the West False River in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in Contra Costa County, July 2021. The 750-foot-wide rock barrier will help deter the tidal push of saltwater from San Francisco Bay into the central Delta.

Jonathan Wong/California Department of Water Resources

How can agriculture survive the drought?

California’s farmers and ranchers sold their products for more than $50 billion in 2019, but all that output comes at a high cost to the state’s water supply — 80 percent of all water use goes to ag, according to the state. Lund said farmers and ranchers should reduce their irrigated footprint, swapping out less profitable crops like corn, cotton and wheat for more valuable ones like grapes or almonds. “It’s going to be smaller in terms of acres, but it could easily be larger in terms of gross profits,” he said. “We’re still seeing a shift from low value crops to high value crops.”

A water marketplace could also help alleviate some of the tension between agricultural and urban water uses in the state, Börk said. Such a system would allow cities running low on water to “buy” water from farmers by paying them to leave fields fallow. “That could go a long way to mitigating problems in drought periods,” he said. One way or another, the agriculture industry will need to cut its water use, Frank said.

“I think what the [state] water board and most government regulators are saying is everybody is going to have to bear a share of the pain and cutbacks,” he said. “For those farmers and ranchers who think they have a right to the same level of water they used 20, 40, 50 years ago, they’re whistling past the graveyard.”

A wheel-line irrigation system running on an agricultural field in California. Steve Payer/California Department of Water Resources

Is it Southern California’s fault?

In the blame game, Southern California — and large cities in general — are popular targets.

But again, the experts urged a look at the bigger picture. “You’ve got to look at all the sectors in California,” Frank said. “Domestic and urban use is considered the highest and best use of water [according to the law]. Are you going to tell cities they can’t provide water for their residents for cooking, cleaning and bathing? I don’t think so.” Börk said the state could do a better job of setting expectations during good years, so people know where to make cuts once droughts hit.

Would desalination plants solve the drought?

Living in a coastal state beleaguered by drought might feel like “water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.” So why don’t we use existing technology to remove the salt from the Pacific Ocean’s water? Some in Southern California are doing just that, seeking a desalination plant in Huntington Beach, just 60 miles from the country’s largest facility. That plant, which opened in Carlsbad in 2015, provides 10% of San Diego County’s drinking water.

“Engineering-wise it’s quite possible, but it’s also very costly,” Lund said. “That would essentially more than double most water bills in urban areas. … There might be some potential there, but it’s never going to be a big contributor, I think.” He added that desalinated water would never be used for agriculture, because it would cost more than the price anyone could likely get for their crops.

Charles E. Meyer Desalination Plant in Santa Barbara plays a key role in improving water reliability and resiliency for the city during drought years. Florence Low/California Department of Water Resources

Will we survive the drought?

Even as worsening droughts continue to threaten the state, California’s economy and people will be just fine, the experts said. Lund wrote in a 2016 California WaterBlog that this state is one of the most prosperous Mediterranean climates in the world. (Australia’s gross domestic product per employed person is higher, but California produces more food.) Yet our native ecosystems haven’t suffered as much as those in other areas.

“I like to tell people we do a terrible job managing water, but if you grade on a curve we do pretty well,” he said, adding that the main drivers of the economy — cities — are the parts of California best prepared to deal with droughts. He added that people in most other Mediterranean climates use much less water than Californians, so more lawns will likely have to turn brown here.

Börk said he is optimistic about the state’s water policy. “California has this long history of consistently, over time changing its water rights system to match the physical reality that’s facing the state,” he said. “California has a remarkable ability to adapt, and I think we can find a way through this together.”


If you have issues with your domestic well, please contact Self-Help Enterprises at (559)802-1285.

For additional information, please see the attached flyer/ Madera County Water Resources – English/Spanish

Drought Workshop

July 20, 2021. This was a Zoom/ In-person event. To watch the recording of the event, please click the link below and enter the passcode (Passcode: &6&WPm6a)

Drought Workshop Presentations

Self-Help Presentation- Drought Workshop– July 20, 2021

Nitrate Control Program Presentation-Drought Workshop– July 20, 2021.

Madera RWMG Presentation- Drought Workshop-July 20, 2021


A drought is an event of prolonged shortages in the water supply, whether atmospheric, surface water or ground water. A drought can last for months or years, and can be declared after as few as 15 days. It can have a substantial impact on the ecosystem and agriculture of the affected region and harm to the local economy. Annual dry seasons in the tropics significantly increase the chances of a drought developing and subsequent bush fires. Periods of heat can significantly worsen drought conditions by hastening evaporation of water vapor.

California’s severe drought was made worse this year by a shocking surprise. Every year, much of the drinking water that flows through the taps of millions of Californians begins in the Sierra Nevada. In a normal year, snow and rain falls on the vast mountain range during the winter months, and the water moves downhill into streams, rivers and reservoirs in the spring and summer. This year, in a trend that startled water managers, much of that runoff simply vanished. This meant ground the was so dry that the water soaked in before making it down the mountain.



Drought Impacts

Severe drought conditions like those now gripping the West have adverse consequences for people, businesses, and nature. These impacts are not evenly distributed. Small and rural communities, many of which have a greater proportion of low-income households and people of color often feel the worst effects. Freshwater ecosystems are at serious risk from low water flows and high water temperatures, and water-quality issues are worsened by increased salt and contaminant concentrations and reduced oxygen levels. Surface water shortages for agriculture lead to more groundwater pumping and continued overdraft causes land subsidence, property damage, drying of domestic wells, and a permanent loss in groundwater storage.

Fish and Wildlife: Droughts in California are especially hard on natural ecosystems already suffering from overuse and contamination. In 2014 and 2015, 95 percent of young, endangered winter-run Chinook Salmon died due to high water temperatures on the Sacramento River ( area), increasing the risk of regional extinction of already threatened salmon and other fish species.

Wildfire:  Wildfires are becoming more frequent and severe and are starting earlier in the year and lasting longer. Low soil moisture and lack of rain worsens pest outbreaks and tree deaths, which in turn further increases wildfire risks and concern is growing for an extremely severe fire risk this year.

Agriculture: In the face of water shortages, farmers have to look to alternative supplies and practices, such as purchasing water through temporary transfers, pumping more groundwater, changing the types of crops grown, installing efficient irrigation systems, and fallowing land. As efforts to implement California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) expand, constraints on groundwater pumping — in both wet and dry years — will grow, further complicating agricultural responses to drought.

Rural Communities: Rural communities throughout the west are often dependent on a single water source, which increases their vulnerability to drought. During the past severe California drought, many shallow rural groundwater wells went dry as deeper agricultural wells depleted groundwater, causing major impacts on some communities. Declining water supplies and water-quality problems this year may force communities to switch to costly bottled water, dig deeper wells, and truck in emergency supplies of water. These actions impose local economic hardships on those living in rural areas, many of whom are among our most disadvantaged communities.

Urban Areas: A diversified water supply means that urban areas are usually not at high risk of running out of water, but severe drought typically leads to voluntary and mandatory efforts to cut use. There is capacity to create additional supply through water conservation in these areas. Water utilities are already beginning to implement mandatory and voluntary water-conservation programs, including educational programs, incentives to install water-efficient devices, and restrictions on discretionary water uses like car washing and watering lawns, and new cutbacks are likely as the drought continues.

Energy: Drought can strain the energy system. Past droughts have led to declines in hydroelectricity generation, leading to a shift to more expensive and polluting fossil fuels. Electricity generation from thermoelectric plants may also be curtailed if insufficient cooling water is available or if temperature limits in receiving waters are exceeded. Pumping costs to farmers increase as groundwater levels drop. Additionally, higher temperatures associated with drought reduce the efficiency of thermal power plants and of transmission and distribution lines while increasing energy demand for cooling systems.


Drought Spreads to 93 Percent of West—That’s Never Happened 

The extreme dry conditions threaten crops and raise wildfire risks

The western United States is experiencing its worst drought this century, threatening to kill crops, spark wildfires and harm public health as hot and dry conditions are expected to continue this month. More than 93% of the land in seven Western states is in drought conditions, and nearly 59% of the area is experiencing extreme or exceptional drought—the two worst conditions—according to the latest figures released by the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Both figures are the highest this century for the area that covers all of Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and most of Utah. Before this year, the record for Western land in extreme or exceptional drought was 43%, set in September 2003. The conditions have led to fire and fishing restrictions across the West and have prompted wildfire alerts. The National Interagency Fire Center is warning that the intensifying drought across the West is creating significant wildfire risk over the next three months from California to the Northwest and across the northern Plains.

“Last year, we had a lot of wildfire and a lot of smoke. It would be very surprising if that did not happen again this year,” Douglas Kluck, NOAA’s director of regional climate services in Kansas City, said in a virtual presentation last week. Agriculture Department reports show that several crops, including wheat, sunflowers, and barley, are threatened by the extensive drought, which is concentrated in the West but is also affecting areas as far east as the Dakotas, Minnesota, and Iowa. “We have huge concerns up in the northern Plains. Conditions are not good,” Dennis Today, director of USDA’s Midwest Climate Hub, said during the presentation. The Drought Monitor said drought-stricken ranchers are selling their cattle because of a lack of feed and poor forage conditions.

At least eight national forests in the West have imposed fire restrictions. Fishing restrictions have been imposed on many rivers because of low flows and warm waters. Although drought conditions have been exacerbated by recent record temperatures in the West, Kluck said the current drought has been developing since the spring of 2020.