“California’s drought is a reminder to countries around the world that flexible systems are critical, both from the supply and demand side. ”
communication and coordination, California’s aridity has been stripped from our memories.
REMEMBERING VARIABILITY California’s narrative reflects the state’s century-long struggle in response to the hydrologic variability. It was precisely this struggle that presented two key challenges: it created a false sense of water security during times of water surplus, leading to water being increasingly overallocated, and second, it led to over-formulization of laws and regulations that may have led to decreased flexibility. These two challenges are not surprising—the mores and values of California today present a stark contrast to the developmental ideology of the twentieth century, where rapid growth of urban centers had necessitated resources to be secured—and none was more important than water. California developers therefore saw water security as vital to further development of the urban area. This is why huge engineering feats, including the Hoover Dam were possible at the time (Kelly, 1998). But, that was then, and this is now. Institutions, laws, and technologies are now radically different from the relatively relaxed policies of the past. On top of that, the agricultural economy has expanded, the number of people to whom water supply must be provided has increased tremendously and environmental laws have led to the need to provide water for native fish habitat (Hanak et al, 2011). Today, codified legislation to protect environmental and ecological concerns have created a struggle to reconcile ecosystem and water management. California has hundreds of laws to comply with, at both the state and federal level, and perhaps not enough water to allocate to the multiplicity of users. In times of scarcity, what is then the State to do?
MANAGING WATER VARIABILITY Droughts present a valid concern for both Californian residents and businesses alike– it presents challenges to the agricultural economy and creates tensions between multiple users. California’s economy has already suffered huge losses due to the water shortage and cutbacks in water deliveries to several districts. A report by the UC Davis Center for
Watershed Sciences found that the drought has led to direct agricultural costs of about $1.84 billion and 10,100 direct seasonal jobs. (Howitt et al 2015). However, more alarming is the incremental damage that is not immediately visible, with costs that must be borne over time. Additionally, the drought can cause permanent and irreversible damage as well – for example, loss of native habitat, species, and groundwater overdraft beyond safe yield and/or saltwater intrusion. Despite these dismal and alarming facts, California water experts remain pragmatically optimistic that California’s economy can withstand droughts, provided water is managed more effectively (Gillis 2015) .
MANAGEMENT AND ADAPTATION Better water management hinges on better adaptation strategies (Tanaka et al, 2006). Adaptation strategies are more commonly employed in low and middle-income countries where resources are scarce, vulnerability is high and mitigation is too costly to be feasible (Satterthwaite, 2007). But in a place like California, where people are used to a level of water reliability, and a higher standard of living, adaptation is challenging. Do we really expect people to “adapt” when they are accustomed to green lawns and reliable water supply? California has had a long history of water supply problems, but has also had a good record of addressing these challenges. The recent drought and the El Nino are only a reminder of the vulnerability of California’s economy to inter-annual variability and long-term climate change. Despite years of water resource development, California has still suffered from this drought, demonstrating that there are no silver-bullet solutions to water challenges, regardless of the level of engineering used or the financial investments made. Instead, adaptation must complement our efforts in water management to increase flexibility in California’s complex and extensive water supply systems, with a recognition that all water challenges will not be completely solved. Developing adaptation strategies requires not only learning from past successful approaches but by learning from doing and testing new approaches. Given the State’s long battle with floods and droughts and its response to these major stressors, there is also greater potential to develop a wider range of innovative adaptation options, relative to water management systems in many parts of the world. From the demand
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