Policy and Politics in the California Drought

A NWNL NextGen Blog by Ruby O’Connor, University College Dublin.

Photos by Alison M. Jones.

This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. Our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts only student essays; sponsors a forum for its student contributors; and invites student proposals to write on watershed values, threats and solutions.

Ruby O’Connor hails from San Francisco, California. Now a student at University College of Dublin in Ireland, she studies Liberal Arts and Sciences. Her academic interests lie in the current state of the environment, history, politics and philosophy. In her personal time, she enjoys traveling, reading, music and art.

We know that Planet Earth is warming rapidly. But what are the implications? Hazards such as droughts will intensify with climate change, causing severe socioeconomic as well as environmental damage. In industrialized countries, droughts mainly cause a hit to the economy. But in developing countries, the societal consequences include migration, famine, and death. Therefore, finding a model for effectively handling droughts is urgent.1Ahmadalipour, Moradkhani, Castelletti, & Magliocca

What makes California droughts so important then? California is located in the dry southwest of the United States and experiences the most geographic and climatic rainfall variability in the country. This makes it prone to droughts. With a developed economy, political stability, and democratic government, California’s principal water use is for irrigated agriculture. The state’s agriculture is extremely important to the US economy and food market. One study by Berbel and Esteban estimates “around 1/6th of all irrigated land in the United States and 8% of the value of US agricultural production is in California’s Central Valley.”2Berbel and Esteban As an important agricultural center, California has had to mitigate its water usage while minimizing socioeconomic and environmental damage. The rest of the US can learn from California’s successes and mistakes in drought management to better prepare for future droughts exacerbated by climate change.

A Tractor parked on dry sandy soil, San Joaquin River Basin CA

Environmental impacts

California has suffered from two major droughts in the 21st century: from 2007 to 2009 and from 2011 to 2016.3Tortajada, Kastner, Buurman, & Biswas We call these “multi-year droughts.” These droughts were characterized by low precipitation, low snowpack and extreme temperatures, which led to uncertainty of water supplies.

In addition, the droughts impacted the energy sector through reduced hydropower production. With reduced hydropower production, energy production turned to natural gas use which increased carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. During 2012-2014 there was an approximate 33% increase in annual CO2 emissions compared to 2011. This was from natural gas used for electric power production. Meanwhile, increased irrigation efficiency (an agricultural water saving strategy) had a unanticipated negative impact on the environment. Saved water was used to expand irrigation rather than return water to streams and aquifers.4Berbel and Esteban

Lake Cachuma reservoir at 39% capacity and showing “bathtub ring” indication of 3-year drought.

Agricultural Impacts

California’s role as a leading agricultural producer for the country is of extreme importance. The state mainly produces fruit, nuts and vegetables. Seventy percent of national fruit and tree nut farm value comes from California. Additionally, 55% of national vegetable farm value comes from California. Multi-year droughts can pose a significant threat to food production for the nation. However, in CA’s last drought, agricultural production did not drop as much as one might expect. In the middle of the drought (2014), California was still the leading state for fresh market vegetables, fruit and tree nut production. No relationship was found between the drought and annual crop revenue or food prices.

Sign about drought in Central Valley CA

While food security was not truly threatened, the sustenance of the agricultural industry throughout the drought had environmental impacts. Increased groundwater extraction was one of the main ways which enabled farmers to continue production. The Central Valley aquifer system is the second most pumped groundwater system in the United States. During the drought, 70% of the water supply in San Joaquin Valley was from pumped groundwater, compared to the average 43% normally derived from pumped groundwater.5Greene Water shortage in the agricultural industry was also offset by purchasing water or fallowing land (meaning to leave a section of land without crops for a season in order for it to ‘recover’).6Tortajada, Kastner, Buurman, & Biswas According to a 2016 interview with UC Davis’s Richard Howitt, Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics, the process of selling and buying water between farmers was informal. He says “It’s a really ad hoc process. There is no eBay for water.… There are a few big buyers and sellers.”7Tara Lohan ‘Drought’s economic impact on Farmers’ News Deeply, February 2016

Pumpjacks in Kent County CA

The water shortage was unevenly distributed throughout the state, with mild impacts on the coast and severe impacts in rural areas.8Greene Part of this is due to California’s complicated system of water rights. Water rights are generally divided into senior and junior water rights. One form of senior water rights is “riparian” rights, which are tied to owning property. Riparian rights give the owner of a piece of land the right to the water which runs adjacent to the property (river, stream, etc.) “Prior Appropriation” rights are the second form of senior rights in California. Essentially, this means that historically, whoever (or whichever district) claimed a water source first had more senior rights to it. Those who came late have junior water rights. And so, the hierarchy of water priority proceeds in California.9Lauren Sommer Not only does the water rights system create uneven access to water during a drought, but it potentially contributes to the overuse of water. In a study by UC Davis in 2015, they found that the State of California has handed out water rights for five times more water than there really is annually.10Lauren Sommer

In 2015, more than 1.03 million acres in California Central Valley remained fallow. In 2011, this figure was only around 406,000 acres.  The majority of the fallowed land in 2015 was associated with annual crops such as rice, cotton, and alfalfa.11Tortajada, Kastner, Buurman, & Biswas This represents a shift in agricultural strategy towards high-value crop production to minimize profit loss during the drought.12Berbel and Esteban Farmers moved towards perennial crops – such as almonds, walnuts, and wine grapes which do not need to be replanted every year13Tortajada, Kastner, Buurman, & Biswas But they need to be watered whether or not there’s a drought – in drought years, farmers don’t plant the perennial crops if they fear they will not have enough water.

Grape vineyard, Tulare County CA


Policy response to the drought was governed by an Interagency Drought Task Force coordinated by Governor Jerry Brown.14Tortajada, Kastner, Buurman, & BiswasThere were four main areas that the Task Force addressed in their policy response to the California Drought:

  1. Water supply:  A mandatory reduction of 25% of urban water use was ordered. Executive orders and legislative bills allowed the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) to spend $9.38 million on water and energy efficiency projects for farms with efficient irrigation systems.15Tortajada, Kastner, Buurman, & Biswas
  2. Emergency response:  California’s relative success in managing the 2011-2016 drought can be partially understood in economic terms. California is a very prosperous state, as exemplified by the agricultural industry. Thus, California was able to allocate a significant amount of money to its emergency response to the drought. After a State of Emergency was declared, Assembly Bills for emergency legislation were fast-tracked to allocate over $1 billion for drought relief and related projects. In addition, in 2014, California citizens voted for Proposition 1, which allowed $7.545 billion for ecosystem and watershed protection and restoration; water infrastructure projects; and drinking water protection.16Tortajada, Kastner, Buurman, & Biswas
  3. Water conservation:  California’s Assembly Bill AB 92 did three things for water conservation. It created an Office of Sustainable Water Solutions; funded water efficiency projects for public and private water systems; and allowed more communities access to access emergency funds. In September 2014, the Governor of California also implemented the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act which theoretically would prevent over extraction of groundwater. But it has been pointed out that this Act does not accomplish enough quickly enough; as its goals are set through to 2042.17Tortajada, Kastner, Buurman, & Biswas
  4. Environmental protection: California policy response was also aimed to protect wildlife. For example, the California Legislation’s Assembly Bill AB 92 allows the Department of Fish and Wildlife to crack down on water diversions affecting freshwater and anadromous fish such as salmon and steelhead trout (aka, coastal rainbow trout, or redband trout).18Tortajada, Kastner, Buurman, & Biswas
  5. Realignment of Energy Resources:  California also aimed to increase its renewable energy production; even though it did produce more CO2 emissions during the drought. Since 2011, solar and wind power energy production in California has increased by 270%.19Hardin et al.

Some note that, despite the economic impacts on Central Valley farmers, as well as urban residents penalized for disregard of water-use restrictions, the drought provided some long-term, unexpected beneficial consequences. A paper published by “Sustainable Cities and Society” states that California’s increased production of solar and wind power  “highlights how policy changes toward having more renewable energy can offset CO2 emissions caused by abnormal weather and climate conditions.”20Hardin et al.

Wind turbines in Joshua Tree CA

The California drought is an example of the importance of policy and funding in mitigating environmental disasters, such as a drought. But it’s also important to notice that immediate solutions are not always sustainable. For example, the agricultural industry was able to survive by pumping extra groundwater; but it is not sustainable to largely deplete groundwater resources like that during every drought. Groundwater supplies take thousands of years to replenish. Empty aquifers put food security at much greater risk in the future.

The water rights system in California is an example of a system which could have been ameliorated to better respond to the drought. Consequences of the drought in rural areas perhaps could have been limited if water rights were more evenly and fairly distributed.


Ahmadalipour, Moradkhani, Castelletti, & Magliocca ‘Future drought risk in Africa: Integrating vulnerability, climate change, and population growth’ in Science of the Total Environment vol 662, April 2019, pp.672–686. Accessed [10 January 2020], by [REO]. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969719303213

Berbel and Esteban ‘Droughts as a catalyst for water policy change. Analysis of Spain, Australia (MDB), and California’ in Global Environmental Change vol 58, September 2019. Accessed [10 January 2020], by [REO]. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959378018304199#bib0335

Greene, Christina. ‘Broadening understandings of drought – the climate vulnerability of farmworkers and rural communities in California (USA)’ in Environmental Science and Policy vol 89, November 2018, pp.283-291. Accessed [10 January 2020], by [REO]. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1462901118305100

Tortajada, Kastner, Buurman, & Biswas, ‘The California drought: coping responses and resilience building’ in Environmental Science and Policy vol 78, December 2017, pp.97-113. accessed [22 December 2019], by [REO]. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1462901117306615#!

Hardin et al., ‘California drought increases CO2 footprint of energy’ in Sustainable Cities and Society, vol 28, January 2017, pp.450-452, accessed [22 December 2019], by [REO] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2210670716303456

Lauren Sommer ‘Will California Drought Force changes in Historic Water Rights?’ KQED Science, May 2015. Accessed [10 January 2020], by [REO] https://www.kqed.org/science/24520/how-californias-water-rights-make-it-tough-to-manage-drought

Tara Lohan ‘Drought’s economic impact on Farmers’ News Deeply, February 2016. Accessed [10 January 2020], by [REO]. https://www.newsdeeply.com/water/community/2016/02/26/droughts-economic-impact-on-farmers

[Editors Note: Citations including page numbers to come.]

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