In summary

With very little water available, investments in our state’s water delivery systems coupled with conservation, storage and reuse are critical.

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By Chandra Chilmakuri, Special to CalMatters

Chandra Chilmakuri is the assistant general manager of the State Water Contractors,

Living in California means living with droughts – there’s no getting around it. 

The devastating 2014-15 drought resulted in water shortages for our communities, farms and the environment, prompting California’s water leaders and decision-makers to implement early planning, improved collaboration, added conservation measures and new local supply projects to help balance the water needs of people and fish in preparing for the drought that is currently before us.

According to the U.S. drought monitor, roughly 90% of the state is already suffering from moderate to exceptional drought conditions. Precipitation in the Central Valley is about half or less than historical averages so far this year. And, with California’s snowpack about 59% of average, it’s unfortunately not in any position to alleviate current conditions. 

This reality resulted in State Water Project allocations being reduced to only 5% of normal and the complete suspension of Central Valley Project allocations for agricultural water users south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The State Water Resources Control Board sent warning notices to approximately 40,000 water users to prepare for potentially drastic reductions in water supplies. And all major SWP and CVP reservoirs in Northern California are being operated to conserve storage – being carefully managed to provide as much cold water as possible this summer for imperiled fish species. 

With very little water available, ongoing and added investments in our state’s water delivery systems – making sure they’re modernized and capable of handling California’s needs – coupled with conservation, storage, reuse and reservoir forecasting are critical to getting through this drought. Federal, state and regional investments in projects like these help maintain affordability for ratepayers, especially in disadvantaged communities, and will improve drought resiliency by allowing water to be stored when it’s wet, for use when it’s not. 

Coupling critical investments in our infrastructure with recent water management and planning improvements – based on lessons learned from 2014-15 – will help us better manage through 2021. For example, in 2018 the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and California Department of Water Resources amended their Coordinated Operations Agreement to more carefully manage cold water in existing reservoirs during dry years to help protect Chinook salmon and other species. 

In 2019, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service released biological opinions that allow for real-time water operations management to protect endangered species like Delta smelt and winter-run and spring-run Chinook salmon, and include specific drought planning commitments. 

The 2020 Incidental Take Permit issued by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for the SWP includes similar provisions. Today, fish agencies and water operators can determine fish presence and use hydrology forecasts and other key information to better protect fish when and where it’s needed most, but especially when there is less water in the system. 

We enter this next dry spell having learned a great deal from the historic 2014-15 drought, and our state and federal regulators have incorporated all that we’ve learned into the latest and greatest drought management strategies. However, together we need to do more. 

Let’s improve storage and conveyance so we can better manage our fluctuating and unpredictable climate. Let’s find funding to improve reservoir forecasting so that we can better manage when to store water for supply and when to release water for flood control. And let’s acknowledge that conservation, recycling and other local investments are both an important part of the water resiliency portfolio and require a modernized state system to make those investments work. 

With the right leadership and investments in improved infrastructure, we can continue to improve our drought management and climate resiliency. The best time to start having these conversations was yesterday, but there’s no time like the present.  

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