Drought Policies

The driest four-year precipitation record for California is from 2012 to 2015, where 2015 also marks the smallest snowpack on record at 5 percent of average.

The driest four-year precipitation record for California is from 2012 to 2015, where 2015 also marks the smallest snowpack on record at 5 percent of average. This most recent drought (2012-2016) showered the state with record-setting heat and spurred several important policies that have enabled California to enact a long-term framework (Water Action Plan) that prioritizes conservation, funding, and actions necessary to deal with water supply sustainability. Below are the main pieces of legislation that were signed into law to coordinate and improve drought relief.

“We can’t make it rain, but we can be much better prepared for the terrible consequences that California’s drought now threatens, including dramatically less water for our farms and communities.” 

Governor Brown Declares Drought State of Emergency, January 17, 2014

Executive Order B-21-13 and the Interagency Drought Task Force

In May of 2013, Governor Edmund G Brown Jr. issued Executive Order B-21-13 that directed the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) and the Department of Water Resources (DWR) to expedite the process and review of water transfers with specifications to “alleviate critical impacts to San Joaquin Valley agriculture.” This EO was enacted after a record dry January-May and after DWR’s snow survey determined that, on May 2, 2013, the Sierra snowpack was at 17 percent of normal conditions. December of 2013 also marked a record dry month that resulted in the Governor’s establishment of an Interagency Drought Task Force to coordinate responses to water shortages between federal and local agencies.

Water Action Plan

In January 2014 the Governor’s administration released California’s Water Action Plan which was adopted to put California on a path to sustainable water management. The Plan was updated in 2016 and includes the following 10 key actions which have—and continue to—comprehensively ground the policies discussed within this paper.

  • 1
    Making conservation a California way of life
  • 2
    Increase regional self‐reliance and integrated water management across all levels of government
  • 3
    Achieve the co‐equal goals for the Delta
  • 4
    Protect and restore important ecosystems
  • 5
    Manage and prepare for dry periods
  • 6
    Expand water storage capacity and improve groundwater management
  • 7
    Provide safe water for all communities
  • 8
    Increase flood protection
  • 9
    Increase operational and regulatory efficiency
  • 10
    Identify sustainable and integrated financing opportunities

State of Emergency

In January 2014, Governor Brown also declared a drought State of Emergency following 2 dry years of hydrology—2012 and 2013 respectively. The Governor’s Proclamation of a State of Emergency (Proclamation No. 1-17-2014), paved the way for California to deliver much needed emergency drought relief assistance to severely impacted communities throughout CA. These efforts began through the following directives that complement the key actions within the Water Action Plan (the full Proclamation text and orders can be found here):

  • DWR was directed to lead State agencies a water conservation campaign to have Californians reduce their water usage by 20%. The campaign was to build upon the existing Save Our Water.

  • Local urban water suppliers and municipalities were ordered to implement their local water shortage contingency plans immediately.

  • The state’s Drinking Water Program was directed to work with local agencies to identify communities that may run out of drinking water and to identify emergency interconnections that exist and could help threatened communities.

  • DWR and the SWRCB were directed to expedite the processing of water transfers, expedite the funding for water supply enhancement projects and to take the actions necessary to make water immediately available.

April 2014 Proclamation

On April 25, 2014, Governor Brown issued an Executive Order (April 2014 Proclamation) to increase drought efforts due to three years of drought conditions. This EO most notably required the SWRCB to adopt emergency regulations to limit wasteful urban water usage and directed California residents to stop wasting water on sidewalks, driveways, landscapes, vehicles and more.

Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA)

A few months later in September of 2014, three pieces of legislation were signed into law that include Assembly Bill 1739, Senate Bill 1168 and Senate Bill 1319. Collectively these three bills are known as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA)—California’s first framework to manage groundwater sustainability for long-term reliability benefits. For more information on SGMA refer to Chapter 4.

Proposition 1

Days later, EO B-26-14 was passed to help streamline efforts for families without drinking water to provide temporary supplies under the California Disaster Assistance Act. 2014 ranked as the third driest water year on record in terms of statewide precipitation and California lawmakers put Proposition 1 (AB 1471- the Water Bond) on the ballot November 4, 2014 which was passed by 4,771,350 voters (67.13%). As noted in the 2016 update, The Water Action Plan provided the foundation for this bond.

Prop 1 allocated $7.545 billion in general obligation bonds to fund the following items shown in the table below:

Prop 1 Funded Item Allocation Committed Balance
Statewide Water System Operational Improvement and Drought Preparedness $2.7 billion $2,646,000,000 $54,000,000
Protecting Rivers, Lakes, Streams, Coastal Waters and Watersheds $1.495 billion $1,161,661,000 $333,339,000
Groundwater Sustainability $900 million $859,066,000 $40,934,000
Water Recycling $725 million $694,834,000 $30,166,000
Regional Water Security, Climate and Drought Preparedness $810 million $512,726,000 $297,274,000
Clean, Safe and Reliable Drinking Water $520 million $480,451,000 $39,549,000
Flood Management $395 million $111,000,000 $284,000,000
Statewide Bond Costs X $150,900,000 ($150,900,000)
Total $7.545 billion $6,616,638,000 $928,362,000

Source: California Natural Resources Agency Bond Accountability Website.

Mandatory Reduction

As dry conditions continued, the Governor directed the SWRCB—on April 15, 2015—to implement a mandatory water reduction in cities and towns across California to reduce statewide potable water usage 25% by February 28, 2016. This mandatory reduction (EO B-29-15) was a first for the State and the Executive Order also included provisions to replace 50 million square feet of lawns with drought tolerant landscapes, prohibit new developments from irrigation with potable water unless using water-efficient drip irrigation systems and investing in new technologies. The full EO and directives can be found here.

2015 also marked the year that the Governor had to issue two executive orders for the State of Emergency due to California wildfires (EO B-33-15 and EO B-35-15) and in November issued EO B-36-15 to bolster drought responses as the state entered its fifth year of drought.

Making Water Conservation a California Way of Life

Though the beginning of 2016 brought some much-needed precipitation, the Governor introduced E0 B-37-16 (Making Water Conservation a California Way of Life) in May to ensure and increase long-term water conservation in the State since drought conditions continued to persist in many regions, especially the Central Valley. This EO mentions the priorities in the California Water Action Plan and calls on Californians to use water more wisely, eliminate water waste, strengthen local drought resilience, and improve agricultural water use efficiency.

Conditions continued to improve and in April of 2017, through EO B-40-17, Governor Brown lifted the drought State of Emergency for all of California BUT the following counties: Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Tuolumne.

Most recently, on May 31, 2018 the Governor approved Assembly Bill 1668 and Senate Bill 606, which add more performance measures for indoor water and for more efficient water use overall. SB 606 includes an amendment that changes “water conservation” to “efficient use of water.”