Pervasive drought conditions still dominate the western United States from the Pacific Northwest to the Colorado Basin, resulting in significant negative agricultural, hydrological and economic impacts. California has been hit the hardest: it is only recently seeing some relief from its fourth consecutive year of drought, but it remains to be seen if that relief will have any lasting impact.
According to the Congressional Research Service, as of Oct. 1, 2014, almost 60 percent of California had experienced “exceptional” drought conditions. Recharge rates for snowpack, aquifers, lakes and streams have been at an all-time low, and groundwater basins have been overdrawn to compensate for the lack of fresh water, resulting in large reductions in water deliveries across California’s agricultural sector.
State and Local Water Conservation
In April 2015, Gov. Edmund Brown Jr. became the first governor in California’s history to issue an executive order mandating statewide water reductions in response to the increasing drought conditions.
The measures also included programs to develop water efficiency technology, replace old appliances with newer water-efficient models, and swap 50 million feet of grass lawns for more drought-tolerant landscaping.
These efforts, as well as federal partnerships with state and local lawmakers, are intended to help California expand water management programs for water storage facilities and water recycling and conservation initiatives.
At the state level, the California Water Action Plan and the Water Quality, Supply and Infrastructure Improvement Act have helped local communities adapt to drought conditions and achieve a more sustainable water management environment.
The Water Action Plan makes investments in water conservation and recycling and expands water storage, safe drinking water, and watershed and wetland restoration.
Under the plan, increased collaboration among state agencies has accelerated emergency relief efforts to supply water to drought-stricken communities.
Furthermore, the State Water Board (SWB) was able to streamline its recycling permitting processes for landscape irrigation, dust control and community supplies.
The Water Quality, Supply and Infrastructure Improvement Act provides an additional $7.5 billion dollars to the state’s water conservation effort.
This funding will go toward water supply infrastructure projects and restoration efforts for ecosystems and watersheds as well as drought mitigation efforts within the California Department of Water Resources (CDWR).
California’s water districts and local agencies are also incentivizing water conservation programs by rewarding good behavior and penalizing waste.
For example, the Newhall County water district in southern California offers rebates and incentives for turf replacement and water-smart irrigation controllers.
Other water districts have implemented restrictions on outdoor watering budgets and employed water waste patrols.
To get the message out about water conservation efforts, water districts in California have developed complex outreach and education plans, including social media campaigns, festivals, drought-friendly gardening classes and community partnerships. These campaigns have focused on simple measures such as prohibiting the use of potable water to wash hard surfaces, requiring leaks to be repaired, and shutting off hose nozzles.
Water districts in California have also entered into federal-level partnerships with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Earth Science Division to help local communities monitor, mitigate and adapt to the intense drought.
Satellite imagery and remote sensing technologies from NASA have proven particularly vital in assisting California’s struggling agricultural sector.
For example, NASA is currently working with the CDWR to provide high-resolution satellite data to local water managers throughout California from its Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) system, Satellite Irrigation Management Support (SIMS) system, and Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite.
MODIS is an instrument mounted on two of NASA’s satellites that transmits daily observations of vegetation coverage at a resolution of 15 to 16 acres. MODIS provides the data behind California’s Vegetation Index as well as much of USGS’s Landsat imagery.
CDWR uses these data to provide communities with nearly real-time assessments of land idling and significant vegetative change during the times of drought.
Data collected from SIMS provides local water managers with information on crop conditions and canopy development over time. This, in turn, allows farmers to adjust the amount of water to give their crops. These partnerships allow for accurate drought monitoring and mapping of fallowed agricultural areas.
NASA Earth Science’s GRACE satellite also provides key data to communities suffering from drought in California. Data from GRACE generate groundwater and soil moisture drought indicators on a weekly basis.
Maps of these indicators help California residents understand the drought as it relates to natural climatic variability versus drought conditions which could be human-induced.
CDWR has also joined with USGS California Water Science Center and universities to provide decision makers with drought maps for fallowed agricultural land in California’s Central Valley.
The Water Science Center works directly with drought-stricken communities to monitor drought impacts on streamflow, surface water, and groundwater quality and availability.
The Science Center then conducts projects ranging from groundwater basin water quality assessments for drinking water supplies to assessing land subsidence using global positioning systems (GPS) and Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar (IfSAR) technology.
The city of Santa Barbara, Calif., for example, is working with the Water Science Center to update its groundwater information.
Other programs that provide helpful information to state and regional water resources offices throughout the nation include the Cooperative Water Program, the National Streamflow Information Program and the State Water Resources Institute Program.
Drought Mitigation Measures in Congress
Members of Congress have responded to the drought in California with two main bills: the Western Water and American Food Security Act (H.R. 2898) in the House, and the California Emergency Drought Relief Act (S. 1894) in the Senate.
The House bill, introduced by Rep. David Valadao (R-CA), contains several titles that focus on maximizing water deliveries to farmers. The key challenge legislators face is how to increase the amount of water supplies to water users without further threatening or endangering fish species or degrading water quality.
The Senate bill, introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), would ensure federal support for water recycling and desalination projects in California and also authorizes funding for water storage projects such as enlarging dams and reservoirs.
The bill calls for collaborations between federal agencies such as the USGS and the Environmental Protection Agency in order to promote the alleviation efforts. H.R. 2898 passed the House of Representatives on July 16, 2015 and is up for consideration by the Senate. S. 1894 has yet to be taken up by the Senate.
Other bills have been introduced in the 114th Congress, including H.R. 291, S. 176, H.R. 2983 and S.1837, which support research and development on desalination plants and water storage facilities.
Scientists, engineers and policymakers at the state, local and federal level are developing and implementing innovative measures to alleviate the impacts of the current drought. They are also collecting and analyzing data from multiple sources to support decision making based on accurate, up-to-date information and to support long-term planning for a variable water supply in the western United States.