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Small, self-sufficient water systems continue to battle a hidden drought

By Amanda Fencl - Posted on 07 August 2017

[cross posted from the CA Water Blog

By Amanda Fencl, Meghan Klasic

California’s drought appears over, at least above ground. As of April 2017, reservoirs were around 2 million acre feet above normal with record breaking snowpack . This is great news for the 75% of Californians that get their drinking water from large, urban surface water suppliers. Groundwater, however, takes longer to recharge and replenish. What does this mean for the more than 2,000 small community water systems and hundreds of thousands of private well-reliant households that rely on groundwater?

Small water systems are defined in our study as those have fewer than 3,000 connections, i.e. those that are not required to file an Urban Water Management Plan (UWMP). A large proportion of small systems serve low-income communities in rural areas. These communities are burdened with high unemployment, crime, and pollution, and their water systems typically have lower technical, managerial, and financial capacity for operations. Of the approximately 13 million people living within disadvantaged communities (DAC), nearly 2 million get their drinking water from a small system. These low-income communities are disproportionately exposed to contaminated drinking water, usually from small systems that struggle to comply with regulations.

These same small systems were hit hard by the drought, and in many cases are the least prepared. The state knew this headed into the drought: “California also has small, rural water companies or districts with virtually no capacity to respond to drought or other emergencies [… a portion of the small systems]  in the state face running dry in the second or third year of a drought” (p.56, emphasis added). In contrast, urban drinking water suppliers (larger systems) are required to have a water shortage contingency plans (Shortage Plan) since the passage of the Urban Water Management Act in 1983. Aside from lower reservoir levels and toxic algal blooms, the majority of large surface water suppliers weathered the recent drought (2012-2016) without supply disruptions or other negative impacts to their customers. A 2015 survey distributed by the UC Davis Policy Institute shows that more large systems (89%) have written drought contingency plans (Plan) than small systems (63%) (manuscript in prep). When asked whether their Plan was sufficient to mitigate the drought’s impacts on water supply, 22% of large and 28% of small system respondents said it was not sufficient or only somewhat sufficient, which begs the question of how can these be improved before the next drought? 

Cooperation and Crisis in California Water Governance

By Mark Lubell - Posted on 21 October 2015

I recently attended a Princeton conference on global governance, complex adaptive systems, and evolutionary theory.  The conference was hosted by ecologist Simon Levin and political scientist Bob Keohane, and featured some of the world’s top scholars in these areas of research. Simon Levin, who has written extensively about complex adaptive systems and a gazillion other things, offered the analogy of the immune system as a way to think how water governance responds to risk and crises.  Immune systems help maintain the function of biological organisms by responding quickly to invasions from external pathogens, or regulating rogue cells that might otherwise cause cancers.

The California Drought is a Political Time Machine

By Mark Lubell - Posted on 05 March 2014

The recent California drought is a time machine. It represents a regularly recurring event in California’s Mediterranean climate, which cycles back and forth between dry and wet years so frequently that a “normal” year is actually the exception. Hence, we have witnessed many droughts in the past, and we will see them again in the future. This prediction holds even if the models are wrong in forecasting that climate change will load the “climate dice” in favor of more frequent and longer duration droughts in the future. Of course most readers know this already—the recurring climate and hydrological patterns of California are big news headlines with nice info-graphics (and countless blogs, tweets, etc) in 2013-2014.

The following Los Angeles Times headlines illustrate the severity of drought in California:

California Levees: The Bureaucratic Politics of Risk

By Mark Lubell - Posted on 24 August 2012

Interesting news today about the Army Corps of Engineers' decision to declare that many of the levees in the Sacramento region fail to meet maintenance standards. As a result, the Army Corp may decertify the levees as meeting the 100-year flood protection standards, forcing many homeowners in the area to purchase expensive flood insurance ($1200 per year!) and limiting federal funding for rebuilding in the wake of a flood. Not only does this case have important implications for Sacramento, which has one of the highest flood risks in the country, but it also illustrates a number of recurring issues in the bureaucratic politics of risk with respect to flood management.

Research Brief: Sustainability Programs in California Viticulture

By Vicken Hillis - Posted on 01 November 2010

We recently released the second in our series of research briefs from our project investigating sustainability in California viticulture. This brief reports the perceived effectiveness of sustainability programs throughout the state, based on findings from our survey of viticulture outreach professionals and semi-structured interviews of winegrape growers. Take a look at the brief and feel free to provide comments.

Sustainable Cities in the Central Valley

By Mark Lubell - Posted on 17 June 2010

DAVIS, Calif. -- The population of California's Central Valley is expected to balloon from 7 million to 12 million people in the next 30 years, making it the fastest growing region anywhere in the United States or Mexico. Can the valley's communities be that big and green as well?

"I am actually pretty pessimistic about the possibility," says the lead author of a new UC Davis review of 100 Central Valley cities' growth policies.

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