As California looks to prepare for ongoing periods of both drought and floods, the state’s Water Commission seeks resident input on a draft white paper titled “Potential State Strategies for Protecting Communities and Fish and Wildlife in the Event of Drought.”
Over the past 18 months, the Water Commission has collaborated with communities, nonprofit organizations, tribes, local governments, water districts, academia, as well as local and state agencies, to develop key strategies for drought resilience.
The state is now in the final stages of developing the white paper. Californians have until Dec. 15 to submit a comment on the draft document.
California Water Commission Assistant Executive Officer Laura Jensen explained that one of the first themes to emerge early on in the commission’s research for the document is the need to prepare for drought during non-drought times.
“That’s because we do get years where we’ve got high flows and a lot of water, a lot of precipitation like we had over the last winter, and if we can manage that water better, then we’re going to be better-positioned heading into drought years,” Jensen said.
The first key strategy outlined in the draft is the need to scale up groundwater recharge, invest in water storage and capture excess water during flood events to recharge groundwater basins.
“So, the commission is calling for scaling up groundwater recharge,” Jensen said. “It’s something that really got piloted a lot in the past year.”
“What we’re calling for is continuing to build on those efforts by planning ahead. Where can we do groundwater recharge in a way that’s going to maximize benefits for communities and for fish and wildlife? That was really the focus of the work that we were asked to do,” Jensen continued.
However, the draft white paper notes that “while important, groundwater recharge alone is unlikely to lead to sustainable groundwater management. Managing groundwater demand is also likely to be necessary to ensure that communities and the natural environment have sufficient water during times of drought.”
The second strategy focuses on advanced planning to support ecosystems during periods of drought.
Jensen explained that fish and wildlife populations are often hit “really hard by drought. Their populations don’t have time to recover between droughts.”
To address ecosystem needs, Jensen explained that the commission proposed “that we better understand the amount of water that’s needed by ecosystems so that we can kind of understand what’s necessary to sustain species when water scarcity increases, and then that we go through some processes to figure out how to prioritize scarce water supplies.”
To protect ecosystems, fish and wildlife, the Water Commission called to set aside quantities of water to “sustain aquatic species during these drought periods,” Jensen said. To do this, the Water Commission is also calling for a modernization of water data.
“That’s an effort that’s underway at the State Water Resources Control Board to get better data so that we can know what water is available and how best to administer that available water during drought conditions,” Jensen said.
The third strategy notes that the state needs to “better position communities to prepare for and respond to drought emergencies,” highlighting, in particular, small, rural communities and native tribes.
“They are hit the hardest by drought,” Jensen said. “So, the actions that we’ve proposed include thinking about the emergency funding that the state provides already to communities during times of drought, and doing a bit of a better job of making it more nimble.”
It’s important to “think about climate disasters more broadly so we don’t have funding that’s only available for drought or only available for floods, but has a little bit more flexibility between the two,” Jensen continued.
The fourth strategy emphasizes the importance of “improved coordination, information and communication in drought and non-drought years.”
The draft papers emphasize the need for an institutionalized and consistent drought response and to responsibly manage water during flood periods and wet years.
At a community level, Jensen explained that it’s also important to build drought resilience at the community level, which can look like diversifying the types of water supply available.
While California is considered out of drought right now, Jensen noted that drought conditions in the state are cyclical.
“Here in California, it’s going to come back … so there’s really a need for dedicated capacity to make sure that we are planning for drought,” Jensen said. “That we are responding to it, that we’re collecting data and taking a look at that data and understanding, maybe the drought emergency is over, but there’s still drought impacts that we need to respond to.”
In the past, Jensen said, California has treated drought as “these occasional emergencies, but it’s going to come back in California and when married with climate change, we’ve got this increasing intensity and water scarcity issue that we’re going to be facing.”
The California Water Commission received a presentation on the draft document on Wednesday, Nov. 15, when Commissioner Alexandre Makler highlighted the term “weather whiplash” as an apt description of the conditions Californians are facing.
“One of the takeaways … is what I’ll call the weather availability volatility,” Makler said. “I think that it really leads to this question of, if you’re dealing with volatility in any commodity or anything, it leads you to the question, do you have adequate storage?”
Commissioner Sandra Matsumoto noted that the Water Commission is responsible for making sure that the white paper on drought strategies is used, adding that she thinks “we need to think about, once the document’s finalized, how might it be used.”
“Maybe there are things that we can do to help make it practically useful and implementable so that some of the suggestions here actually become action items,” Matsumoto said.
Jensen noted that a key point that readers can take away from the draft paper is that “we’re all in this together.”
“Everybody can play a role, be it during drought times or outside of drought times, to help us manage water more thoughtfully and carefully, to better address and prepare for droughts, as well as to adapt to a changing climate,” Jensen said.
“The state’s doing a lot of great work already on this topic,” Jensen continued. “And there’s a continued need to collaborate across sectors to continue to advance and build on the good work that the state’s already doing to help improve our water management.”
After the public-comment period closes in mid-December, the final white paper on drought strategies will be presented during the state Water Commission’s meeting on Jan. 17. Comments on the drought resilience strategies can be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org.