California’s State of Emergency

Hanna Stroud

Arctic Research Fellow, Climate Institute

California is in a state of emergency. As the state grapples with its fourth year of drought, the total amount of water stored in its twelve major reservoirs stands at only at forty-two percent of the historical average.1 In 2015, the Sierra Nevada snowpack, a major supply of water, reached 0% before the end of May, the earliest it has ever thawed. In fact, the April 2015 Sierra Nevada snowpack was the lowest in the last five hundred years.2 As California is the world’s eighth largest economy and the producer of about half of the fruit, nuts, and vegetables consumed in the US, the effects of a drought this large will be felt beyond the state’s borders.3

California drought
Photo by USDA

Eighty percent of California’s water use is agricultural. In 2014, farmers faced a shortfall of 6.6 million acre-feet of water (an acre foot is an acre of water a foot deep) from surface water sources.4 To make up for this loss, an additional 5 million acre-feet of water was pumped from aquifers, which increased groundwater’s contribution to total statewide irrigation from 31% to 53%.5 Even with the increased usage of groundwater, the drought is estimated to have cost the state’s agricultural industry $1.5 billion in 2014.5

Pumping water from aquifers is not sustainable, and it raises legal questions as to who owns the water. Water is being pumped out of the ground faster than it is being replenished, and it is only a matter of time before the groundwater is tapped out as well. Depleting groundwater sources can cause detrimental environmental effects including ground subsidence, which can further damage the farms that lie above.6 Recent research from NASA has shown that some areas of the Central Valley are sinking as rapidly as two inches a month.7

The duration and severity of the current drought also highlights both regulatory and sustainability issues in the agricultural system. The planting of perennial crops, which need constant irrigation, has increased in the last decade. Since the drought, many orchards and fields, particularly in the Central Valley, have been left fallow as many farmers face harsh water restrictions. Meanwhile, some farmers in the Sacramento Valley, whose water rights predate 1914 and are thus less strictly regulated,8 flooded their fields to grow rice for export. Better regulations are needed to ensure that California’s agriculture industry uses water more responsibly.

The remaining 20% of California’s water is consumed by households and non-agricultural businesses, with about half of this being used in landscaping.9 Most of California’s residential water use is concentrated in the state’s two most densely populated areas, the San Francisco Bay area and the South Coast. While water use per person varies substantially from region to region, people in all areas need to continue to conserve water. Some areas in the Central Valley have been without running water for months. In Tulare County, about 5,433 people don’t have water for basic functions such as showering and flushing the toilet.10 For some of these communities, this has been the case for over a year. They rely on various charitable organizations to provide relief in the form of portable toilets and showers, and packages of bottled water.

In the past year, with a “state of emergency” status in place, there has been some progress in California’s drought policy. In April, Governor Jerry Brown issued a mandate calling for a 25% reduction in water usage in cities and towns, compared to their usage in 2013. Since July, urban water consumption has dropped 31%.11 In June, farmers whose water rights predate the 1914 Water Commission Act were faced with the first cuts to their water usage since 1977.12 These restrictions have led to more fallow fields, and a large increase in the use of ground water for irrigation. While policies that focus on conserving groundwater resources are in the works, they will not take effect immediately.

The dry summer, with its record heat and countless wildfires, has made the drought the focus of news in California. Communities and individuals have learned to make every drop count. But more needs to be done. While this summer’s efforts are commendable, they were also long overdue. This is the first year of widespread public water conservation efforts, but the fourth year of drought. Despite increased precipitation in the fall of 2014 compared to 2013, there is still a long way to go before the state’s reservoirs can recover. Even if El Niño is as strong as predicted, one year of above average rainfall will not fully replenish the state’s reservoirs and aquifers. It will take years of good rain to fully recover from the drought, and, as a result, it is imperative that Californians continue to conserve water.

A study from Columbia University’s Earth Institute measured global warming’s influence on the drought, declaring that it increased the severity of the drought by as much as 25%.13 Numerous other studies warn that droughts will become more frequent as we continue to emit greenhouse gasses and the effects of global warming become more pronounced. This problem will not go away, and its effects will extend far beyond California’s borders. Conservation in all areas is the most reliable method to ensure all Californians have water in the future.


Wildfires in Yosemite National Park. Photo by NASA

In the dry, dusty Central Valley, signs line the interstate that read, “Congress created the Dust Bowl.” In reality, it was own our unsustainable system of irrigated crops and cosmetic landscaping. As we enter a world racked by higher temperatures, unpredictable precipitation, and an increase in extreme weather events, a “new normal” needs to be considered as we plan our food system. New technologies, such as hydroponics and drip irrigation, will need to be adopted in order to make every drop of water count. The state of emergency in California is not just a call for the state to fix its water policy; it is also a warning. California cannot afford to assume that this is an isolated incident, or that its water resources will revert back to normal conditions with a few good years. It is time to invest in new technologies and formulate new policies to make California’s water infrastructure more adaptable in the face of a new and changing climate.


1. California Reservoir Conditions [Internet]. 2015. State of California. [cited 2015 Sep 16]. Available from:

2. St Fleur N. 2015 Sep 14. Study Finds Snowpack in California’s Sierra Nevada to Be Lowest in 500 Years. The New York Times. [Internet] [cited 2015 Sep 23]. Available from:

3. California Drought: Farm and Food Impacts [Internet]. 2015. (Washington DC): United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. [cited 2015 Sep 14]. Available from:

4. California: Drought. 2014. University of California Davis Rural Migration News. [Internet] [cited 2015 January 2015]. Available from:

5. Howitt RE, MacEwan D, Medellín-Azuara J, Lund JR, Sumner DA. 2014. Economic Analysis of the 2014 Drought for California Agriculture. [Internet] [cited 2015 Sep 23]. Center for Watershed Sciences, University of California. Available from:

6. Groundwater Depletion [Internet]. 2015. Reston (VA): United States Geological Survey Water Science School. [cited 2015 Sep 23]. Available from:

7. The Associated Press. 2015 Aug 19. California: Pumping of Water Speeds Sinking of Land. New York Times. [Internet] [cited 2015 Sep 23]. Available from:

8. The Water Rights Process. [Internet]. 2015. Sacramento (CA): California Environmental Protection Agency State Water Resources Control Board. [cited 2015 Sep 23]. Available from:

9. Mount J, Freeman E, Lund J. 2014. Water Use in California. (San Francisco CA): Public Policy Institute of California. [Internet] [cited 15 Sep 15]. Available from:

10. Californians Living Without Water. 2015 Sep 9. Borrego Sun (Borrego Springs, CA). [Internet] [cited 2015 Sep 23]. Available from:

11. Top Story: California Water Use Drops 31.3 percent, Exceeds 25 Percent Mandate for July [Internet]. 2015. State of California. [cited 2015 23 Sep]. Available from:

12. Medina J. 2015 Jun 12. California Cuts Farmers’ Share of Scant Water. The New York Times. [Internet] [cited 2015 Sep 23]. Available from:

13. Fears D. 2015 Aug 20. Global Warming Worsened the California Drought, Scientists Say. Washington Post. [Internet] [cited 2015 Sep 16]. Available from:

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