California’s Continuing Water Woes Call for Creative Solutions

Posted by on Mar 19, 2015

Almond trees being uprooted at Baker Farming in Firebraugh, California in February 2014 after loss of irrigation water. Photo: Justin Sullivan, Getty Images, NBC News

Almond trees being uprooted at Baker Farming in Firebraugh, California in February 2014 after loss of irrigation water. Photo: Justin Sullivan, Getty Images, NBC News

California’s water woes are back in the news with a leading scientist suggesting that the state—or at least the Central Valley—has just one year of water left. Jay Famiglietti, Ph.D., the senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech and a professor of Earth System Science at UC Irvine, stirred things up with a March 12th opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times in which he reported on hydrologic modeling and data from satellite imagery on the state’s water supplies. He wrote that the amount of water in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins is 34 million acre-feet below normal—a deficit that is nearly 1.5 times the total capacity of Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir.

Coming off three years’ of drought (with some respite at the end of 2014), California saw its driest January on record; snowpack and groundwater levels are at all-time lows, and water supplies are dropping rapidly, according to Famiglietti. “We’re not just up a creek without a paddle in California, we’re losing the creek too,” he said in the LA Times piece.

In the Central Valley (America’s agricultural breadbasket), surface water allocations to farmers have been cut 80-100%, so farmers have either taken land out of production (fallowing fields or pulling up almond orchards, for example) or turned to groundwater to make up the difference. Groundwater pumping has been unsustainable, with more and more wells running dry and some land in the Central Valley dropping by as much as a foot per year.

NASA calculates total water supply or storage (in reservoirs, other surface waters, snowpack, aquifers, and soils), and has found that the total has been dropping since at least 2002, when satellite monitoring began. Since 2011, that total water supply, statewide, has dropped at a staggering 12 million acre-feet per year, according to Famiglietti.

“Right now the state has only about one year of water supply left in its reservoirs, and our strategic backup supply, groundwater, is rapidly disappearing,” Famiglietti said in his article. He points out that the state has no contingency plan for a long-term drought, such as that being experienced today.

Snowpack in California as of March 17, 2015. Average snowpack is shown in the shaded light blue with maximum and minimum levels since the 1970s also shown in the upper and lower lines. Source: California Department of Water Resources

Snowpack in California as of March 17, 2015. Average snowpack is shown in the shaded light blue with maximum and minimum levels since the 1970s are shown in the upper and lower lines. The heavier blue line shows the current conditions. Source: California Department of Water Resources

What to do about it

In his LA Times piece, Famiglietti outlined several steps that could be taken, starting with “immediate mandatory water rationing…across all of the state’s water sectors, from domestic and municipal through agricultural and industrial.” Famiglietti, who serves on the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board (one of the nine California State Water Boards), notes that Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is already considering water rationing for this summer if conditions don’t improve, but he suggests this should be implemented statewide.

Famiglietti’s other two suggestions have to do with accelerating the implementation of the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 and creating a task force of thought leaders to come up with a long-term water management plan for the state.

I suggest two other specific strategies that would put market forces to work in curtailing water use:

  1. Provide universal water metering

Mandate water metering for all municipal water systems in the state. California law requires water metering by 2025, and most communities now have it, but emergency funds should be appropriated to speed the installation of water meters in municipalities where metering isn’t universal. Nearly a quarter-million customers in the state, including many in the Central Valley, aren’t metered today, according to an article last fall in the San José Mercury Times.

Data is pretty clear that water consumption is higher in communities with a large number of homes without water metering than in communities with universal water metering. The adage that “you can’t manage what you don’t measure” holds true with water—and not just in California, but everywhere.

Far more challenging will be to figure out how to meter and regulate groundwater withdrawals. Aquifers are (or should be) owned by everybody—a public resource—so extractions from that common resource should be measured and regulated. Metering private wells, though, would be an uphill battle in our increasingly anti-regulatory climate nationwide. Perhaps groundwater withdrawals for commercial uses would be the place to start. This could be one of the agenda items for the task force that Famiglietti suggests be set up.

  1. Institute tiered pricing for water and ramp up the prices for higher tiers

The idea with tiered pricing for water is that you pay a modest per-unit fee for the first tier of water consumption each month, but then you pay a lot more if you use a lot of water. This market-based approach has little impact on low-income people, because their consumption tends to be low. (Water utilities can provide attractive rebates to make it easier for those of limited means to replace toilets and install low-flow showerheads to help them curtail their consumption.) If homeowners want to fill spas or lap pools, luxuriate in daily baths, or maintain green lawns, they should have to pay more.

A lot of communities in California (and a few around the rest of the country) already have tiered pricing, but according to an article last month in the LA Times, lawsuits are being filed that such pricing violates state law. Proposition 218, passed in 1996, prevents the agencies from charging customers more than the cost of providing that service. If that state law needs to change to allow municipalities to institute sensible pricing policies, get busy and change that law. A well-designed campaign should be able to communicate clearly the need for such a change.

Where tiered pricing is in place, the impact should be evaluated and if it’s not having a big enough effect, the pricing for higher-consumption tiers should be ramped up significantly. In Austin, Texas, residential customers pay $1.25 per thousand gallons for the first 2,000 gallons consumed in a month, but $12.25 per thousand gallons for monthly consumption in excess of 20,000 gallons (see table below).

Table 1. Austin, Texas residential water rates

Monthly usage (gal) $ per 1,000 gal
Less than 2,000 $1.25
2,001 – 6,000 $2.80
6,001 – 11,000 $5.60
11,001 – 20,000 $9.40
Over 20,001 $12.25

Santa Fe, New Mexico’s residential water rates are significantly higher, starting at $10.00 per thousand gallons for consumption up to 3,000 gallons per month and go as high as $38.00 per thousand gallons at the highest tier. Commercial rates in Santa Fe are even higher, rising as high as $48.70 per thousand gallons for usage over 30,000 gallons per month.

Table 2. Santa Fe, New Mexico residential water rates

Monthly usage (gal) $ per 1,000 gal
Less than 3,000 $10.00
3,001 – 6,000 $11.20
6,001 – 10,000 $13.90
10,001 – 20,000 $18.20
20,000 – 30,000 $25.70
Over 30,000 $38.00

Unfortunately, these municipalities remain the exception for water pricing around the country. The vast majority of municipal water customers in the U.S. pay flat fees for water, no matter how much they use. Tiered water pricing makes sense everywhere, not just in the places where water shortages are most acute.

Tiered pricing of some sort is also needed for the agricultural sector—the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Of the 12 million acre feet per year of annual drop in water supply in California, two-thirds of that has to do with groundwater pumping in the Central Valley.

Incentivizing farmers to switch to more efficient irrigation could be achieved through tiered pricing for water use, though the baseline would have to be carefully thought through. Another item for Famiglietti’s task force?

Adding a global focus to these water issues

I just finished reading the 2011 book, The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water, by Charles Fishman, which I highly recommend. The book is a treasure trove of facts and figures about water. But more importantly, it presents examples from around the world where innovative solutions to water problems are being tried and are working.

We have a lot of challenges ahead with water—particularly in California—but the clear message from The Big Thirst is that those problems are solvable if we put our minds to it. We can achieve more resilient water systems.

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Along with founding the Resilient Design Institute in 2012, Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. To keep up with his latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed. To receive e-mail notices of new blogs, sign up at the top of the page.


  1. it’s still amazing to me that we use what will soon be recognized as our most valuable resource on the planet for flushing away human waste

    there’s Gotta be a better way!

  2. Update: Today, 4/1/15, Governor Brown instituted the state’s first-ever state-wide mandatory water reductions. The California Water Resources Control Board will implement this order, with the goal of reducing water consumption in towns and cities by 25%. Other provisions of this executive order can be found here:


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