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Open Access Publications from the University of California


The California Journal of Politics and Policy (CJPP) is an online journal of original scholarship, focusing on state and local politics, public policy formation and implementation, especially in the Golden State.

Water in the West


Introduction: Coping With Western Drought

Drought adaptation is not just a matter of hydrology and technology. It is at least as much about the way we govern.  As John Wesley Powell and others explored and surveyed the territory west of the 100th meridian, they observed that it was distinctive in its aridity and topography. From a water perspective, it might have been better had western state boundaries conformed more closely to the contours of rivers and groundwater basins. Perhaps then the West could have avoided such bitter interstate water disputes as between California and Arizona over the Colorado River. Boundaries were shaped in nonhydrological ways for sundry reasoins.  To make matters worse, many states have since propagated special districts that cater to various water needs and desires for local control that has all too often hampered potentially effective regulation and regional coordination.

The Devil is in the Data: The Role of Science, Data, and Models in California's Historic Sustainable Groundwater Management Act

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 (SGMA) set a goal to achieve sustainable management of California's groundwater resources by 2040, yet it left many of the details of its implementation to be worked out through subsequent regulations. Arguably, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) developed the most important of these regulations this year regarding how the state should evaluate local Groundwater Sustainability Plans. Despite their importance, these regulations have received little media attention or independent review. Here, we offer our independent analysis of a key aspect of the regulations, focusing on the role of science, data, and models that will be critical for SGMA's material and institutional success. In particular, we draw on our previously published research regarding sustainability metrics (Christian-Smith and Abhold 2015), the role of stakeholders (Dobbin et al. 2015), and the importance of good governance (Kiparsky et al. 2016). We conclude with a series of general principles for ensuring scientific transparency.

Charting New Waters: Why Has Integrated Water Management Succeeded in Some States But Not Others?

Integrating the management of groundwater and surface water, which were once treated as separate resources in most western states, has become the norm in recognition of their hydrologic connection and because of its importance in providing cheap, reliable water storage. US Water Alliance, a coalition of municipal water utilities, agricultural leaders, and environmental interests, has held a series of meetings promoting the idea of “One Water Management” and developing a network to share information and advance its agenda of “adaptive, integrative water management planning”

One notable exception is California where regulation and management of surface water and groundwater remain separate and distinct.

Improving the Federal Response to Western Drought

All drought operations and planning in the West rely heavily on water information and forecasts provided by federal agencies. The federal government should preserve and enhance existing hydrologic and meteorologic data networks hit by budget cuts and modernize the technology used for forecasting. This may require rebalancing budget allocations for research, observation, and forecasting. This report begins with a spotlight on the current western drought followed by a road map of the various federal roles that touch on western water management and indentifies a series of modest, pragmatic federal actions that can help western states prepare for droughts and better manage emergencies when they occur.

Accounting for California Water

Understanding California’s water balance sheet—how much there is, who has claims to it, and what is actually being “spent”—is key to effectively managing the state’s limited water supply in support of a healthy economy and environment. The latest drought has spotlighted serious gaps in California’s water accounting system. California is a large, geographically diverse state, and its water systems are physically interconnected and institutionally fragmented. Water infrastructure connects the state’s northern watersheds to its southernmost communities, Sierra Nevada rivers to coastal cities, and surface water to groundwater. Additional complexity arises from having hundreds of independently governed water systems, each with its own water accounts; from the widespread practice of managing linked surface water and groundwater as separate systems; and from a lack of clarity on how much water is reserved for environmental purposes. The combination of physical interconnectedness, institutional fragmentation, and water scarcity heightens the need for more effective accounting at the statewide and river-basin levels.  We identify gaps in California’s water information systems and recommend that the state modernize its water accounting, and that key state agencies—supported by an oversight committee of key stakeholders and independent experts—develop and adopt a common accounting framework.

Overcoming the Challenges to Using Tiered Water Rates to Enhance Water Conservation

In 2015, California entered a record breaking fourth year of drought. In April, responding to continuing drought emergency conditions, Governor Brown issued an Executive Order that directed the State Water Board to take a variety of actions to conserve water. The Executive Order was soon followed by an emergency regulation adopted by the State Water Board that required a 25 percent reduction in potable water use: the first mandatory statewide urban conservation requirement in U.S. history. Economic literature and practical evidence have demonstrated the effectiveness of tiered pricing in achieving water conservation. A ruling by a California Appellate court on the legality of tiered water rates in San Juan Capistrano showed that a California constitutional amendment, Proposition 218, posed potential barriers to a robust conservation-based, tiered pricing approach.  Proposition 218, approved in 1996, limited the ability of local government agencies to raise rates without a direct nexus between the fees and the increased cost. Studies assessed the advantage of pricing approaches over non-pricing approaches to achieve conservation goals and identified potential strategies to set water rates consistent with Proposition 218 that helped achieve conservation targets. Strategies were developed based on a review of rate-setting best management practices and their efficacy in three Southern California water agencies.  The strategies included setting rates based on the cost of different sources of supply, isolating various costs involved in water supply, incorporating conservation cost into rates, and including fixed cost as a higher percentage of the rate. Water supply scarcity continues to challenge California, but effective rate-setting approaches encourage conservation and comply with current legal requirements.