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Drought: The New Normal

The Nature Conservancy is developing best practices and forward solutions that benefit both nature and people.

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Brian Stranko, director of The Nature Conservancy’s water program, discusses the drought—and how California can prepare for a drier future. 

Q: What’s the drought outlook in California? 

A: We were behind coming into the last wet season and the near-average rainfall that we received didn't allow us to catch up. So, most areas of the state are still experiencing drought conditions, especially southern California. We need to assume that we’re going to have light precipitation and do our best to be prepared for even more severe drought conditions in 2017.

Q: What does California need to do to prepare for future droughts and a potentially drier future?

A: We need to do a better job of measuring how much water we use and how much water supports nature. Otherwise everybody loses—the environment, people, farms, you name it. Nature’s needs fluctuate. If we can get clear about the timing of nature’s needs, we can be sure nature gets its needs met—and then people can use the water at other times.

We also have to modernize our water system. We currently spend about $30 billion annually on our water system to support an outdated system. We need to increase investments in enhancements such as conservation efficiency, recycling, storm-water capture, and groundwater recharge. 

Lastly, we make it very hard for ranchers and farmers to provide water to nature. For instance, our water rights system requires you to consistently use the water you’re entitled to or the right could be given to someone else. Our laws also make it hard to change what time of year you are allowed to divert water from a river or stream. This can force farmers to only take water from a stream in the summer—when the environment needs it most. The alternative, which we currently don’t do, would be to allow farmers to capture and draw water from ponds during wet winters, rather than from a stream in the summer. 

Q: How does groundwater factor into the equation?

Roughly 30 -40 percent of California’s total water use comes from pumping water from aquifers below the surface. In some parts of the state, that rate drains our aquifers faster than they can be refilled with rain and snow. This is called overdraft, and it means our groundwater reserves dwindle over time. 

We heavily rely on groundwater during a drought—it can comprise 60-70 percent of our total water use. This can lead to widespread overdraft that causes entire towns to run out of water, farms to lose crops, and rivers, streams, and wetlands to dry up. If we focus on managing our groundwater so it’s recovering, then we can use it as a “water savings account,” adding to it in wet times and drawing from it in dry times. 


Q: What’s at risk if these issues aren’t addressed?

A: We’ve already seen some of the repercussions of the drought over the last five years. We’ve had entire communities run out of water. Bottled water had to be trucked in to support local residents. Farmers can’t tap into groundwater anymore because somebody else has dug a deeper well. And we may see as many as 18 native fish species go extinct. However, since most people in the state can turn on their tap, public perception is that we have not reached a high-enough crisis level to call for major changes. 


Q: Are there any success stories that California can look to for inspiration?

A: We can learn from places like Israel, that comprehensively measures how much water it uses and where it goes. Australia also withstood a drought that was close to 15 years. That created a sense of urgency that compelled the government to make some pretty big changes, including paying billions of dollars to buy water rights dedicated to the environment. This was a bold move that has the potential to allow some water users to be compensated for water they will no longer use—and to consistently provide water for natural to survive.


Q: Are there any programs already underway in California to help manage the environmental impact of the drought?

A: Absolutely. On the Shasta River, we’re demonstrating how to provide water for salmon during their annual migration upstream. We’ve developed a program where we pay ranchers not to irrigate at key points of the year so that salmon can migrate in or out of that river. 

We do something similar for migratory birds  in the Central Valley, where we create surrogate wetlands in the form of flooded rice fields, despite losing 95 percent of our natural wetlands. However, rice farmers aren’t always flooding their fields at the exact time birds would benefit. If birds come here and there aren’t any flooded fields, they may not have enough habitat to survive. But if we pay farmers to flood their fields when the birds want to be here, then we can create the habitat that these birds need. 


Q: What’s the one thing California could do this year to improve the water system for people and nature?

A: We should comprehensively measure our water use and the water that goes to nature. Nature doesn’t need the same amount of water all the time. If we are clear on the timing, we can improve the current and future water needs of our people, economy, and environment