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California Water Crisis Update

Written by Vincent Caprio

california water crisisHistoric Drought in Its Fifth Year

It has been awhile since I have commented here on issues stemming from California’s ongoing drought. At the intersection of California’s historic drought entering into its fifth year, national initiatives focused on water, and with a pending and dramatic presidential campaign afoot, it is a good time to take inventory of the situation, starting with a summary of a few key events that have lead us to the water situation we see in California today.

Governor Jerry Brown issued a state of emergency in January 2014, some three years after the drought began. With conditions rapidly deteriorating across the state, Brown directed:

  • Californians to reduce water consumption by 20 percent;
  • local water suppliers to immediately implement local water shortage contingency plans; and
  • the Board to consider petitions for consolidation of places for use for the State Water Project and Central Valley Project, which could streamline water transfers and exchanges between water users.

In the few years since Governor Brown’s announcement, the issue of water use during the drought has been an extremely hot topic in California, and beyond. And for good reason. According to Stanford University historian David Kennedy, a scholar at the university’s Bill Lane Center for the American West, “one of every 3 Americans now lives in the West,” and “one out of every 8 Americans lives in California.”

As the demand for water steadily increases in the face of an historic drought, California has allocated five times more water to human uses than currently exists in the state’s rivers. Something has got to give. Strong water policy is in demand more than ever.

The Scientific Data

Experts say that the current drought in California is the worst that the region has seen in 1,200 years. Yes, “twelve hundred” years! This assessment comes after sophisticated research and analysis by researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the University of Minnesota. The research included analysis of the rings of blue oak trees which a researcher explained “California’s old blue oaks are as close to nature’s rain gauges as we get, they thrive in some of California’s driest environments.” Thus, the tree rings reveal variations in moisture over centuries.

Using the trees, rainfall data back to the 13th century was established. In addition, the researchers calculated the severity of the drought by “combining NOAA’s estimates of the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI), an index of soil moisture variability, with the existing North American Drought Atlas, a spatial tree-ring based reconstruction of drought developed by scientists at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.”

The current drought is especially bad, in part due to a double whammy of sorts. The two warmest years on record in California happened to occur in 2014 and 2015. Scientists refer to the combination of dry and hot conditions as a “Hot Drought.”

Moreover, the record heat has further contributed to California’s current meteorological drought, in part, by reducing snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains. During the dry season (May to September), this snowpack (as it melts) provides about one-third of the state’s farms and cities with fresh water. The estimated snowpack of the Sierras, on April 1, 2015, was at 5 percent of the average for that time of year—lower than any year on record since 1950, according to California’s Department of Water Resources.


The solutions to the current crisis and long-term planning must come from strong leadership and effective policy.

For short-term relief, California can seek to eke more water out of its rivers. Another option is to find new sources of water through such regulatory imposed, or voluntary, measures such as recycling wastewater, capturing urban storm water runoff, increased conservation, improvements to efficiency and increased desalination projects. All of these efforts, to some extent, are under way in the state, and could be significantly accelerated with federal help.

Leon Szeptycki, the Executive Director of Stanford’s Water in the West program, says “There’s a big role for the federal government to play on a variety of fronts…The West’s water infrastructure is old, and it needs not just to be renewed, but it needs to be renewed with an eye to what the future of water management is.”

These grander visions of extended programs, fueled by public-private partnerships at both the state and federal levels are, of course, the arena in which the Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP) conducts its mission—as was evident in Washington, DC recently at the White House Roundtable on Water Innovation.

Leadership from the White House

To recap briefly, the White House has recently convened leading stakeholders to analyze and generate policy solutions not only for the current drought conditions in California but for much broader national purposes. The outcomes are notably ambitious, but also attainable, presuming serious collaboration and support from all major stakeholders.

First, the White House proposes cutting the nation’s water use by 33%. That would save not just water, but all the energy used to move and treat water across the economy. In theory, the benefits of such a reduction in water use would cascade (again, pardon the pun) through the economy: if washing machines need less water, then one would heat less water to run them, which means less money spent for electricity. Less water leading to lower energy costs. That’s a win-win situation. Additionally, the largest single use of electricity in the country is for the movement of water from one point to another. So, reduction by 1/3 from every farm, factory, university, power plant and skyscraper would significantly reduce electricity use—as well as carbon emissions.

Research & Education

An equally important focus is emerging to develop new solutions as the fruit of investments in research and education on topics such as cheaper and more effective desalination methods are implemented.

The emphasis on education is not only designed to foster specific water solutions, but also more generally to inspire interest in STEM subjects (such as water technologies) in the minds of young and creative citizens. These even include preschoolers!

California Congressman Mike Honda (U.S. Representative for California’s 17th Congressional District) whose constituents are at the forefront of the water crisis, announced this week that he has invited Carrie Lynne Draper, Executive Director, Readiness Learning Associates, to be one of the four panelists at his briefing on Early Learning STEM. Representative Honda and his staff organized the briefing, along with Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (U.S. House of Representative Texas’s 18th Congressional District) and her staff.


In closing, the Water 2.0 Series will continue to participate actively in Washington, DC and across the country to engage stakeholders from the public and private sectors who can create solutions to the serious water problems facing our nation long-term and to those being severely felt in California today. These stakeholders also stand to benefit directly from improved water management policies.

Vincent Caprio

Mr. Caprio is the founder and executive director of the Water Innovations Alliance Foundation (WIAF). As the executive director of WIAF, Mr. Caprio writes a regular column for GE’s Our Water Counts blog. Mr. Caprio is the founder and event director of the Water 2.0 Conference series, with the next event being held on November 18, 2015, in Washington, DC. Mr. Caprio is one of the foremost advocates for government funding of emerging technologies at both the state and federal levels. Mr. Caprio has testified before Congress and the state legislatures of New York and Connecticut, and he has been an invited speaker at over 100 conferences.

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