Lessons Learned from California’s Most Recent Drought

One thing can be said for certain about the 2007-2009 drought in California: it sure got a lot of attention. Both its natural severity and the complex set of political, economic, and social disputes yielded a drama of epic proportions that got people talking around the state and across the country.

But now that the dust has settled, the time has come to figure out what it all really meant, and how to prepare for when it happens again. Not surprisingly, the recent drought has enlivened the ages-old debate on water management in the state.

Two reports released in June, one from the Pacific Institute and one from the California Roundtable on Water and Food Supply, offer valuable insights and recommendations on how to reduce vulnerability and increase resiliency in the event of future droughts.

The Pacific Institute’s report claims to provide “the most comprehensive and updated information on the impacts of the 2007-2009 drought.” The authors crunched volumes of data on water and energy use, employment and poverty, crop insurance indemnities, precipitation, fisheries, and various other economic and political factors to guide their analysis.

Their overall conclusion is that while the drought certainly had some devastating impacts on agriculture, they were neither as severe nor as widespread as had been previously estimated. While the all-time high gross revenue for California farms was reached in the midst of the drought (in 2008), significant revenue declines were seen in some counties. The state’s overall harvested acreage, which has diminished annually for at least decade, actually slowed its decline during the drought. Some growers adopted effective and sustainable coping strategies, while others relied too heavily on groundwater pumping, according to the Pacific Institute.

The report recommends moving away from “crisis management” responses to drought, urging instead the adoption of “risk management and resilience frameworks.” These would necessitate increased water monitoring systems, vulnerability assessments, and support for anticipatory actions, such as on-farm adaptive strategies.

The Roundtable report brought together twenty-five diverse stakeholders. Though the report does not directly reference the 2007-2009 Drought, its recommendations push multi-stakeholder ‘water stewardship’ as the new management paradigm. Such a process aims to provide multiple co-benefits through water management, ensuring that all parties and regions are properly prepared to cope in the event of the next drought.

‘Water stewardship’ shifts the focus from broad-scale aggregate impacts and statewide strategies to local ecologies and economies. It reframes water debates around regional contexts, thereby recognizing the specific needs of each area.

Given the regional disparities in drought impacts highlighted by the Pacific Institute report, a regional water stewardship approach could also help identify the most vulnerable growers and develop consensus-based strategies to alleviate risk.

Although entirely different approaches were used in crafting the two reports, they both identify some common needs, including better data collection.

The Roundtable cites the need for a “stronger knowledge base,” stating, “a one-size-fits-all approach is impracticable and insufficient to address today’s challenges; a watershed-by-watershed approach is required to identify appropriate and effective management solutions.”

In other words, it is misguided and simplistic to simply call for reduced water consumption—we need to better understand the dynamics of withdrawal and groundwater recharge to make changes where they are most needed.

The Pacific Institute report cites the near-impossibility of accurate drought prediction, stating that expanded data collection would facilitate “informed response and planning” in face of uncertainty. It also cites CalCAN’s Ready…Or Not? report, which highlights the need for more research capacity given the specter of climate change.

But both reports stress that, perhaps even more important than data collection itself, is the capacity to distribute needed information to the public. The Roundtable calls for more “efficient and effective” systems of data dissemination that are available to decision-makers at all stakeholder levels. Most crucially, this would require more trained support staff for growers along with retention of existing (but dwindling) staff resources from agencies like UC Cooperative Extension and USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Overall, the Roundtable’s recommendations revolve around one major principle: support for collaboration. All parties should work to encourage agricultural stakeholder participation within the Integrated Regional Water Management (IRWM) plans, which bridge political, jurisdictional, and watershed boundaries to craft “mutually beneficial solutions.” For multi-stakeholder processes to work at the local scale, growers need the institutional capacity, knowledge networks, and alignments in policy that are required to build a consensus view.

It’s no secret that agriculture is particularly vulnerable to the increased drought impacts expected in the years to come. Now is the time to put systems in place that will keep growers going strong, regardless of the challenges that lie ahead.

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