April 5th, 2016


Executive Director, Sustainable Conservation

Climate Change Manager, State Water Resources Control Board

Director, Sustainability & Environmental Affairs, Almond Board of California

Robert E. Paradise Professor of Natural Resources Law, Stanford University


Many Californians are wondering if El Niño has saved the Golden State from its historic drought. The snowpack in Sierra Nevada is more robust, reservoirs in Northern California are more full, and Folsom Lake even rose 10 feet in the month of March. However, the state is nowhere near pre-drought conditions. Three experts joined Greg Dalton at the Commonwealth Club to discuss the future of water in the Golden State.

This past year has been average at best, according to Barton Thompson, Director of the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University. “The drought that we’ve seen so far was not just an ordinary drought. It was one of the worst droughts that we have seen just in terms of the total deficit precipitation.”

For agricultural companies in California, the drought continues to cast a shadow on their output. Certain areas of the state are faring better than others. Executive Director of Sustainable Conservation, Ashley Boren, sees it as a localized issue. “In the northern part of the [San Joaquin Valley] it’s not nearly as severe as it is in the southern part of San Joaquin Valley where a lot of farmers still aren’t getting allocations of water.”

Some argue that the lack of precipitation isn’t the true cause of the current agricultural water shortages. Instead, the Almond Board’s Gabriele Ludwig argues, regulators are shutting off the tap for a variety of reasons. “It can be for fish, it can be for temperature, it can be for salt.”

Certain crops, for example almonds, have been showcased by the media as water hogs. According to Ludwig, almonds are in the spotlight because they are one of the largest crops in the country. Not much attention has been paid to the incredible growth in water-efficiency over the last 40 years, as farmers have produced 40 percent more food with the same amount of water. But for Ludwig, the public perception comes down to an even more basic issue. “Many people do not understand… what it takes to grow food. I don’t care what you eat. There is a lot of water in that food.”

A new bill introduced by Senator Dianne Feinstein is proposing to pause the more stringent regulations of the Endangered Species Act for the sake of drought relief. Thompson admires her ambition but admits, “I still question whether or not it’s going to leave the environment where the protections are necessary.” He also worries that it won’t pass the Senate, a sentiment echoed by Ludwig. “Senator Feinstein is one of the few people who could actually potentially make that happen.” Boren sees room for improvement, for instance shifting the focus from single species health to whole ecosystem health. State Water Resources Control Board’s Max Gomberg is unconvinced. “The state’s position is you don’t go undoing federal legislation that’s been around for decades and is important to preserving our environmental values.”

Only in 2014 did a comprehensive groundwater act come into law requiring all local jurisdictions to adopt sustainable groundwater management plans. Although Bart Thompson is skeptical of the implementation timeline, Ludwig maintains that California can recharge its aquifers.

Not only was the west’s water system set up during an unusually wet period in history, but the effects of climate change are leading us towards a more arid environment. As Gomberg puts it, “Our temperatures are getting warmer; our snowpack is receding.” He argues that the long-term solution is not just finding more water, but being more efficient with the water we have. On top of that, Ludwig argues, “it’s about diversifying the water supply.” That could mean using solar to desalinate water or using tertiary clean water for irrigation. Boren advocates for a more integrated approach to water management, specifically thinking about surface water and groundwater as one complete system rather than two separate systems.

There are over 1,400 major dams in California. Gomberg sees the value in dams during wet years as a vital way to store excess water into distributed reservoirs, but some water still needs to get back into the ground. “More dams is not going to solve our fundamental problems with water supply in the state.”


Related Links:

California Emergency Drought Relief Act

Groundwater Management Act

Show Me the Water Law

Human Right to Water Law

Stanford Study on California Atmospheric Patterns: Noah Diffenbaugh


Written by: Ellen Cohan
Photography by: Rikki Ward