California Dreamin’…of Rain

If the rains failed to follow the plow, it’s safe to reach the same conclusion about the freeways as well. California, the nation’s most populous state and largest agriculture producer, is enduring a three-year drought that has grown into the state’s worst on record. With the critical Sierra Nevada snowpack at 12% its normal capacity this season (as of Jan. 30, 2014), some communities are at a real risk of running out of drinking water, and an estimated half million acres of productive farmland are expected to lay idle. Californians can no longer afford the luxury of debating climate change; they are living it, and the unprecedented decisions burdening state officials could very well be the forecast for the rest of the arid Western states.

 State of Emergency

January is typically California’s wettest month; however, as precipitation continued to elude the golden state, Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency on the 17th. This decree, in part, put water right holders on notice of being forced to limit and potentially cease water diversions in the upcoming months.  While junior appropriators are first to be cut, “[s]ome riparian and pre-1914 water right holders may also receive a notice to stop diverting water if their diversions are downstream of reservoirs that are releasing stored water and there is no natural flow available for diversion,” according to AgAlert, the weekly newspaper for California agriculture.

State officials have implemented vast water rationing procedures to conserve what little water is left for the routinely dry summer months. Governor Brown’s decree called on all citizens to reduce water consumption by 20% and mandated urban water delivery suppliers to implement their water shortage contingency plans. Furthermore, the decree also instructed state agencies to employ water use reduction plans at all state facilities and placed a moratorium on non-essential landscaping projects at state facilities and on state highways.  Additionally, Governor Brown directed the State Water Resources Control Board to expedite the processing of water transfers to enable water to flow where it is most needed.

Governor Brown’s notice came to pass on January 31 when the California Department of Water Resources (“DWR”) announced that the State Water Project (“SWP”) would likely make zero water deliveries this year to all twenty-nine public water agencies it supplies. These adversely affected public water agencies help supply water to twenty-five million Californians and irrigate approximately 750,000 acres of farmland. Never before has the DWR announced a zero allocation to its customers. Further, deliveries to irrigation districts in the Sacramento Valley that hold senior water rights will be cut by 50%, the maximum amount permitted by contract with the SWP. This marks the first time since 1992 that deliveries to these districts have been cut.

Worse yet, in the coming weeks, the federal Central Valley Project, which supplies the majority of the California’s agriculture water and irrigates over two million acres, is expected to announce a bleak summer delivery projection as well.

When the Wells Run Dry 

Affected communities have been directed to subsist primarily on groundwater until the reservoirs return to adequate levels. However, as state officials are cognizant that California’s groundwater is already being depleted like never before, aquifer levels are now under closer supervision. In fact, recent data shows that the equivalent of full Lake Mead has been pumped from below the Central Valley in the past decade alone. Accordingly, the DWR has been directed to monitor well construction and deepening projects as well as produce an expansive public report on groundwater levels throughout the state by April 30th.

Governor Brown also directed the state’s Drinking Water Program to provide technical and financial assistance to communities at risk of running dry and establish emergency interconnections within the state’s public water systems to help sustain these threatened communities. So far, ten communities, mostly in the northern part of the state, have been targeted for immediate aide as they could run out of drinking water sixty days from February 19. Correspondingly, state officials have begun trucking in drinking water and helping lay pipes to connect these communities to neighboring public water systems.

The Ripple Effect 

The drought is causing heightened surface and groundwater usage, which is compounding water shortage problems and increasing groundwater contamination. Unable to rely on groundwater to relieve surface use, the Orland-Artois Water District ran out of water in late January after it delivered more than triple the amount of irrigation water in the first three weeks of the month than it had ever delivered in the entire month. Further, contaminants generated mainly from agriculture runoff are becoming highly concentrated in aquifers, as less water is available to dilute them. “The state has helped about 22 of 183 communities identified last year as reliant on contaminated groundwater to bring their supplies into conformance with environmental guidelines, but the rest are still building or preparing to build systems,” according to CBS News.

Making it Rain

California lawmakers recently proposed a $687 million drought-relief funding plan aimed to clean up contaminated drinking water supplies, improve irrigation and water conservation systems, and provide emergency food and shelter to furloughed workers in agricultural related industries. Notably, the plan also increases penalties for illegal water diversions. President Obama also took action, pledging $183 million in federal aid to the state through the Farm Bill, signed February 7.  The federal aid package allocated $60 million to shore up California food banks and provided $100 million to compensate farmers for livestock loss.

Watch and Learn

California’s biblical drought will likely raise produce prices in grocery stores across the country as the California Farm Bureau estimates a $5 billion impact resulting from idled farmland. Ideally, national ramifications would end there. However, we must recognize that what is happening in California cannot be quarantined. The unfortunate future of the American West has arrived, and other Western states need to both prepare for and learn from what is happening in California.

It almost seems fitting that California, arguably the most progressive state in the union, is the first to take direct action in the face of climate change. California, however, has been forced in this position, and forced to act swiftly. Other Western states have the limited luxury to develop water conservation and management plants in preparation for what is being thrust upon California. The precedent is hastily being set, and we must learn what we can from the failures and successes of California’s response to climate change.


The title picture is of the San Gabriel Dam and Reservoir, located in Los Angeles County, in December 2013. The picture is attributed to Shannon1 and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. The use of this picture does not in any way suggest that Shannon1 endorses this blog.


Jerry Brown, A Proclamation of a State of Emergency, Office of the Governor (Jan. 17, 2014), available at

California Department of Water Resources, DWR Drops State Water Project Allocation to Zero, Seeks to Preserve Remaining Supply, News for Immediate Release (Jan. 31, 2014), available at

Rueters, Water Contamination a Risk in California Drought, Experts Warn, CBS News (Feb. 19, 2014),

Norimitsu Onishi & Coral Davenport, Obama Announces Aid for Drought-Stricken California, N.Y. Times (Feb. 14, 2014),

Kate Campbell, Rare ‘Curtailment’ Notice Underlines Depth of Drought, AgAlert (Jan. 29, 2014),