Issue 539December 2014

Another Year With No Rain

The worst drought in over 30 years forces California to reckon with its anachronistic water management system

Urbanist Article December 16, 2014

The main reservoir for the State Water Project, Lake Oroville has become a poster child for the California drought. The lake is currently only 5 feet higher than the record low of 645 feet above sea level, recorded on Sept. 7, 1977. Photo courtesy California Department of Water Resources.

What Happened:

The worst drought in over 30 years — and one of the worst ever — forces all of California to reckon with its anachronistic water management system, and to find solutions for this century’s changing climate and growing population.

What It Means:

The few decades during which California’s first cities were established were just a blip in the geologic record: As the climate changes, or even swings back to presettlement conditions, much more is at risk if growing coastal cities can’t adapt to changing weather patterns.

2014 began as the driest year ever recorded in California. It is likely to close out as the fourth driest year in more than a thousand years, following only 1977, 1580 (not a typo), and 1934 — the latter was a drought so widespread and severe it set off the historic Dust Bowl. That winter, the same atmospheric phenomenon existed as the one that emerged in late 2013: A large high-pressure system in the Pacific Ocean blocks storms from tracking through California. Researchers have calculated the risk that, following two abnormally dry years in 2012 and 2013, and generally low rainfall conditions throughout California since 1999, we are entering a decade-long “megadrought” at 50 to 80 percent. There is even a small chance this drought could last 50 years or longer.  We have had such megadroughts before, but not for thousands of years, when our climate was drier and warmer overall. Now, climate change is poised to make such conditions more likely going into the future.  

Today, 25 million more people live in California than in 1934, and many are in coastal urban areas highly dependent on imported water from wetter regions of the state. As these cities were settled in the 19th and 20th centuries, entrepreneurial — and eventually governmental — interests sought to deliver them water (along with the state’s burgeoning agricultural industry). This investment in our statewide plumbing system was a cornerstone of California’s economic prosperity and urban growth in the last hundred years.  But it also locked in dependency on a water regime it turns out we probably can’t rely on, and that has had disastrous environmental impacts that may be worsened by climate change.  

It is beginning to look like we need a wholly new solution that doesn’t hew to the system of water rights, conveyances and massive re-plumbing, which reflect 20th-century thinking about the problem.

What could this look like? Cities can pull two levers to increase resilience in their water portfolios. First, they can reduce waste and overall demand through a mix of tools: conservation, education programs, fixing leaks, requiring old plumbing to be retrofit with more efficient fixtures, improving pricing structures, implementing green building programs, and more.  SPUR described many of these strategies and weighed their cost-effectiveness, reliability and environmental impact in our 2013 report, Future-Proof Water. A meaningful campaign to conserve water can typically reduce demand 10 to 15 percent in California’s cities.  In this year’s drought, cities are investing more than ever to market available rebates, water audits and to launch new landscape-transforming efforts such as “Cash for Grass” lawn replacement programs, which are extremely popular in Napa, Sonoma, Los Angeles, Santa Monica and other cities.  

Less popular are severe cutbacks and restrictions.  Water districts all around California, including the Bay Area, have implemented restricted outdoor water use.  Some smaller cities such as Stinson Beach and Willits, which are extremely constrained in sourcing new water supplies, have implemented tight household daily water limits for which exceedances trigger significant fines or even jail time.

Second, urban areas can, over time, shift their water supply portfolios’ reliance on energy-intense imported water toward more local, reliable and reused resources. In particular, SPUR believes that recycled water and potable reuse — highly purified recycled water suitable for drinking — could significantly scale up in the Bay Area to provide us with more drought-proof supplies in the future. The benefits of a more closed-loop system include saving limited resources (ideally returning water to constrained and compromised ecosystems), reducing exposure to climate and market variability, and immunity to water rights curtailments. Loops can be closed at multiple scales: within a city, within a neighborhood or district, or even within a building. For example, San Francisco has permitted onsite reuse of captured, treated water for non-potable uses, which can save between 50 and 75 percent of potable water demand in mixed-use and commercial buildings. District-scale water recycling, detention and treatment systems are an opportunity to reduce future stormwater flows and augment supplies in dense urban areas and new large campus-type developments.


The Santa Clara Valley Water District and City of San Jose’s new advanced purification facility is a bellwether for the region in its pilot effort to highly purify recycled water to potable standards. Although the state does not currently permit drinking treated, recycled water, it is expected to within several years, and this facility will be ready to augment water supplies in the South Bay with eight million gallons a day. More facilities like this, ready to capture waste, purify it and put it to better use, will put our region in a better position to weather the next drought — or perhaps the extension of this one. 

It is not just drought for which our cities must prepare, and for which the infrastructure of the past is no longer a good fit, as climate change is linked to an increasing rate of sea level rise, coastal flooding, extreme and prolonged heat waves, fire risk, and more. The good news is that preparing for change can improve resiliency in the system, and we can do this by retrofitting our shorelines, water supplies, stormwater and water treatment systems, urban forests, and energy systems to be more sustainable, reliable, and durable than they are today. It is not a given that simply thinking ahead will naturally lead to this outcome, so we must take care to avoid maladaptation — over-engineered, crisis-driven, hasty solutions that in the end make things worse.  But it’s the responsibility of progressive places like the Bay Area to avoid making the easy but brittle choices, really understand our vulnerability, and to demonstrate how to keep the cities we inherited from the last century viable and more sustainable going into the next. The drought of 2014 may have a silver lining yet.

About the Authors: 

Laura Tam is SPUR’s sustainable development policy director.

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