Policy Researchers Offer Recommendations for Statewide Water Management

Between 2012 and 2016, Californians experienced the state’s hottest drought on record, as well as one of its driest. Among other consequences, the drought revealed critical vulnerabilities in the state’s water management system. As climate change progresses, it’s likely California will experience additional droughts and other markers of extreme weather conditions, including hotter temperatures, shorter and more intense wet seasons, and more volatile precipitation.

With boosting future drought resilience now a top priority across the state, a team of 30 researchers affiliated with the Public Policy Institute of California has released a new report, “Managing Drought in a Changing Climate: Four Essential Reforms.” Two professors of environmental economics and policy in UC Riverside’s School of Public Policy, Kurt Schwabe and Ken Baerenklau, served as co-authors.

The researchers looked to lessons learned during the 2012-16 drought as guidance for a series of four recommendations designed to inform state policy. During the most recent drought, they noted, different sectors of Californians experienced its effects at varying levels of severity, with rural communities especially vulnerable to the impacts of a diminished water supply.

“It is drought that tests the vulnerabilities of water supply systems, and so drought should be the unifying focus of reforms,” the researchers wrote. “California will need new policies and strategic investments to reduce the social, economic, and environmental costs of dealing with droughts of the future.” In particular, the researchers identified four common-sense reforms to help the state ready for the future, including:

  • Planning that’s more forward-looking and comprehensive.
  • Improved storage, conveyance, and operations that better reflect current and future water realities confronting California.
  • Updated allocation rules that reflect more equitable and efficient ways to respond to competing demands for limited supplies of water during dry periods.
  • More reliable sources of funding and sensible water pricing options to pay for critical and necessary infrastructure upgrades and improve water agencies’ financial health.

“Continuing on a ‘business-as-usual’ approach to managing California’s water will result in unnecessary and likely significant social, economic, and environmental costs,” Schwabe said. “It’s really not a matter of if the reforms should happen — they are inevitable given population growth and climate change — but a matter of when. But the longer we wait to enact such reforms, the greater the costs to California will be.”

Tess Eyrich

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