California 2014: H2-Low

Typically when you talk about water in California the only thing people agree on is that it’s wet. Other than that, well, it’s a topic full of opportunities for arguments.  This year however, there’s something else most Californians agree on about water: We don’t have nearly enough of it.

Coming on the heels of several relatively dry years, the 2013-14 “wet season” is shaping up to be one of the driest on record.  Lakes and reservoirs around the state are well below seasonal norms and the Sierra Snow Pack, California’s “savings account” when it comes to water, is holding only about 20 percent of the normal water content. If it continues, and most long term forecasts indicate it will, the lack of water in California could have severe impact in several different ways.

The most obvious impact is on agriculture. With less surface water available, some farmland will inevitably lie fallow this year. Others might have to be irrigated from wells, a costly option at best.  And unfortunately, the lack of snow also affects the availability of hydro-electric power in California.

According to the California Energy Commission, roughly 15 percent of the state’s power comes from hydro-electric generators—which are also usually the least expensive to operate. It’s too early to know how much the drought will reduce that energy source, but to the degree it does, California’s utilities will have to rely on other more expensive power sources.

The other obvious impact of the drought is on wildfires in California. This year there’s already a fire burning in the foothills of Tehama County that might be covered in snow in a more normal year.  So the drought has the impact of extending the fire season, and making the late summer months even more harrowing than usual for people who live, work or play in the state’s open spaces.

We worry about the impact drought can have on people, but it also impacts the environment. Some plants and animals are especially vulnerable. Salmon and other anadromous fish need cool running water for spawning, and low water levels in their rivers make it harder for young fish to migrate to the ocean. And prolonged drought also means less wetland habitat for ducks and other waterfowl.

These are the obvious impacts of the drought, but there are other “ripple effects” on California’s economy and the environment. Adverse impacts on agriculture can increase food prices. Less hydro power means more reliance on natural gas and can lead to higher energy costs.  Fires take a terrible toll on habitat and air quality and can impact tourism—and there is also the actual cost of fighting the fire.

The Governor has convened a drought task force to begin laying the groundwork to manage these and other impacts of the drought. During his Budget press conference he noted that “Governor’s don’t have the authority to make it rain” but he also pledged to do everything possible to make water more available.  The Governor has so far stopped short of issuing an official drought emergency declaration which would make California eligible for additional federal resources.  That is still an option for later in the year.

So what does this all mean for counties? First and foremost it means that even though there has not been a formal declaration of drought, public agencies should consider implementing water conservation strategies now. Whether it’s a gallon or an acre-foot, the water saved today could help get us through the hot, dry days of summer. Second, make sure your emergency management networks are up to date and working. No matter if it’s a fire, heat wave, water shortage or some other calamity, these networks can save lives and property, but only if they work and if the people who use them know how to do so.

And finally, CSAC has already begun working with state agencies and other associations on drought mitigation strategies. CSAC’s role will largely be to communicate those strategies and tactics to make sure counties have the information they need. With the diversity of our 58 counties, there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to how counties should begin addressing the drought. Modoc and Monterrey will probably have a different take on what they can do to help manage the drought, but CSAC can be a clearing house for ideas and information. We might not be able to make it rain, but working together we can help reduce the impact of the drought.

About: Karen Keene:
Karen Keene is CSAC's Senior Legislative Representative for Agriculture and Natural Resources and Deputy Director of Federal Affairs. She can be reached at

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