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The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability
ISSN: 1354-9839 (Print) 1469-6711 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/cloe20
California’s New Normal? Recurring Drought:
Addressing Winners and Losers
Stephanie Pincetl & Terri S. Hogue
To cite this article: Stephanie Pincetl & Terri S. Hogue (2015) California’s New Normal?
Recurring Drought: Addressing Winners and Losers, Local Environment, 20:7, 850-854, DOI:
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13549839.2015.1042778
Published online: 20 May 2015.
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California’s New Normal? Recurring Drought: Addressing Winners
and Terri S. Hogue
Institute of the Environment and Sustainability UCLA, Los Angeles, CA, USA;
Civil and Environmental Engineering, Colorado School of Mines, Golden, CO, USA
With numbers of poor agricultural communities unable to access running water at all in the
Central Valley, and wealthy urban communities still watering vast expanses of lawn, golf
courses and polo ﬁelds, the impact of California’s drought has been uneven at best, and
has exacerbated inequality throughout. Though California has faced droughts before and
historically water has been conserved far and wide, this drought is different and reﬂects
a conjuncture of the weight of history, current events and awareness. Differential impacts
are slowly being revealed by the press – perhaps an unanticipated result of consciousness
raising by the Occupy Wall Street movement– and there is ﬁnally some discussion of the
state’s antiquated and dysfunctional water law and infrastructure.
Clearly climate change has been in people’s minds and there has been lively debate about
whether this drought is a result of climate change impacts, or merely a manifestation of the
episodic and historic droughts the state has faced historically. With climate change, there are
a range of predictions about whether the state will face less precipitation or not, but all agree
that the state’s precipitation will come increasing in the form of rain – not snow, for which
all of our water infrastructure has been designed (Neelin et al. 2013, Berg et al. 2015). Pre-
dictions also include more extreme episodic events, including periods of no precipitation
and periods of high and more intense precipitation (Berg et al. 2015). This new awareness
has also led to an understanding that, in fact, the state has experienced major droughts over
the millennia, including a mega drought in the Middle Ages that may have lasted over
several hundred years. Drought is a fact in the West. When it hits and why is less well under-
stood; but climate change will have an exacerbating effect.
Agriculture and population growth
Population in the state has grown signiﬁcantly since the last major drought period in the
1970s and agriculture has shifted crops towards more lucrative, permanent and lucrative
# 2015 Taylor & Francis
Corresponding author. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Local Environment, 2015
Vol. 20, No. 7, 850–854, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13549839.2015.1042778
Local Environment 2015.20:850-854.
orchard crops (e.g. almonds and pistachios) since that period. Furthermore, more land in the
Central Valley has come under production for these perennial crops, leaving less room for
ﬂexibility and fallowing (Hanak 2015). California’s antiquated water rights system, includ-
ing senior and junior water rights, based on historic rights that have been transferred along
with land ownership over time, further complicates matters. For example, 24 entities with
senior water rights use double the volume of water delivered to the rest of agriculture during
an average year (Beaman 2014), most of these large corporate farms. The state has been
reluctant to challenge this historic seniority, exacerbating the difﬁculty of managing
water. Corporate agriculture has become a fact in the state as the Reagan administration
refused to implement the rules of the 1902 Reclamation Act (enabling the Central Valley
Project) that required farmers using federally subsidised water to sell acreage over 160
acres for pre-water prices, or pay full cost for the water. Instead, they were granted the
right to continue using federally subsidised water at subsidised prices on farms thousands
of acres in extent. These same farmers have pumped groundwater over time, but are now
dramatically depleting the Central Valley aquifers as they can afford to deploy bigger
pumps deeper into the aquifer. Not only have their practices polluted groundwater, but
pumping is leaving a number of low-income communities with no water what so ever,
and they are potentially threatening the viability of those aquifers for ever. This comes in
addition to the already more than 1.3 million people in the San Joaquin Valley (mostly
in poor farming communities) who cannot drink their water due to nitrate contamination
(Landon et al. 2011). Farmers are not required to report how much groundwater they
pump, nor how much water they use on their crops.
The state water project, developed by California tax payers, to be gradually paid for by
the recipients of the water, created contracts for water deliveries. These contracts are widely
acknowledged to be based on more water available in the developed system at the time, now
impossible to fulﬁl. This created a complicated legal conundrum – the hydrology is out of
synch with what the state is on the hook to deliver. The rules and regulations as well as the
contracts of the state water project, the lifeline for many of the urban areas in the southern
part of the state and central valley agriculture would need to be entirely revisited by the state
legislature, heavy lifting indeed.
Land development has also increased urban demand though demand overall is declin-
ing. In some areas, however, like the Coachella Valley, absolute increases in urban water use
have been occluded by per capita urban water use declines. Thus, it is difﬁcult to know if
reported numbers are accurate. Over 50% of urban water use is out of doors (Mini et al.
2014a), and the development has largely occurred in the warmer inland parts of the state.
A sense of entitlement
We also suggest that there has been an insidious shift in the public’s perception of the
commons, where those at the top may feel less compelled to change their behaviours.
Our work, funded by the National Science Foundation and the NASA, clearly shows that
for the residential sector in Los Angeles, the wealthy use up to three times more water.
Income was the primary forces driving single-family residential water use in the city.
The disparity reﬂects different land uses, built densities, climates and vast differences in
wealth that make up a city where the top 5% earns over 12 times more than the bottom
20% (Mini et al. 2014b). This is certainly reinforced by a lack of strongly tiered water
rates in the city, which is prevalent throughout the state. We discovered that when the
city of Los Angeles, under conditions of drought, increased the cost of water, lower
income customers were more sensitive to changes than higher customers. Furthermore,
Local Environment 851
Local Environment 2015.20:850-854.
we found that mandatory water restrictions (numbers of days a week and time of day water-
ing allowed) were far more effective at reducing water consumption than voluntary
measures, and had the highest impact on higher income users. Overall, about 35% water
conservation was achieved in 2009 compared to 2001 – 2007, maintaining a similar level
of greenness throughout this period (Mini et al. 2015 ). Yet many cities in the state,
especially in its heartland where the water tables are quickly disappearing due to over
extraction by agriculture (Faunt 2009, Famiglietti et al. 2011), do not even have water
meters at the residential level, though these are mandated by 2020. Consumers currently
pay a ﬂat rate. What this implies – especially given the spatial segregation of Los
Angeles and most California cities – between the rich and the rest is a kind of insulation.
Not only do water prices to date not reﬂect its scarcit y through tiered rates (Los Angeles
only has two tiers, though is discussing further tiers at this time), but there seems to be a
lack of civic engagement and leadership relative to landscaping change. Those who use
the most water and can best afford new landscaping, are not at the forefront of shifting
to the needed new outdoor water use paradigm that involves climate appropriate plants,
accurate and smart irrigation. It is a reﬂection of the general evolution of the place of the
1% in the nation – disconnected from civil society. At the same time, understanding that
the water that is used out of doors is the water that will not be available to drink is still
far from people’s consciousness. The poor conserve water because they cannot afford
not to; the wealthy are not charged enoug h, but also can afford to water as much as they
wish. Neither, though, is immune from potential long-term shortages. Water used out of
doors is no longer available; water is a zero sum game.
A dysfunctional sociotechnical regime
The state’s water infrastructure and management (its sociotechnical water regime) was built
on assumptions about a non-drought perturbed climate. Water managem ent, delegated to
the locality due to a late nineteenth-century belief in local control, remains extremely decen-
tralised. In the late nineteenth century, the state also adopted a system of water rights joining
appropriative and riparian systems, senior and junior water rights, with no explicit regu-
lation of groundwater. To develop agriculture and encourage urban growth, the federal gov-
ernment invested in the Central Valley Project, bringing water to the fertile Central Valley
from Shasta Dam, a system of over 300 miles of canals, in the 1930 – 1940s. The State
Water Project augmented transfers and was authorised in the early 1960s, directed in
large part to facilitate urban growth in southern California.
At the same time, there was no state coordination or regulation of local water provision.
In Los Angeles County alone, there are 100 different water delivering entities, from whole-
sale to retail, public (including city and special district, governed by different enabling
legislation, private and non-proﬁt) (Cheng and Pincetl in review, Cope and Pincetl
2015). Some of the smallest and poorest cities in the county have the most complex
water delivery situations. For example, the tiny city of Maywood (1 square mile) with
a poverty rate over of over 30% and which is largely Latino, is serviced by three private
water companies, each with its own rat e and water quality.
Drought restrictions by the state today must percolate thr ough this dense thicket to the
locality, and agricultural regions are even more opaque. What capacity to small cities or
small districts have to ensure that their water works are efﬁcient, and to repair old leaky
pipes? While in the Los Angeles Region, there are adjudicated groundwater basins with
allocated rights and regulations about pumping –the adjudication process, arguably
simply ﬁxed rights in the ground water based on historical extractors. In the Central
852 S. Pincetl and T.S. Hogue
Local Environment 2015.20:850-854.
Valley of the state, and most other places, there are no such adjudicated pumping regu-
lations, so it is a free for all – or rather those with the most money to dig the deepest
wells get the most water.
Thus, the state’s drought, while due to nearly four years of extremely low rainfall, is also
an artefact of the way in which humans have created a new socio hydrology, composed of
hard infrastructure storing and moving water hundreds of miles, overriding considerations
of groundwater management, better utilisation of local water resources, and parsimony.
Water was released from the dams as though the state could count on precipitation the
next year; it did not happen. The path dependency of the rules and regulations – such as
the contracts to deliver a certain amount of water to State Water Project Contractors –
all create breaks on change, on addressing the new normal. Other rules and regulations
of water management are highly localised, or, in the case of Central Valley groundwater,
historically non-existent. The lack of metering across numerous cities in the state, weak
tiered pricing in most cities, and the general conception of abundant water, simply exacer-
bates the difﬁculty of quick response. Elected ofﬁcials, often the ones who must approve
higher rates, are, of course chary of that initiative, and as we have found, since wealthier
areas use – at least in the City of Los Angeles – up to three times more water than less
wealthy areas – it is jeopardising potential campaign contributions to do so.
Finally, there is the question of water rights in the state. These stand in the way of reg-
ulating water as a human right and as a commons. Enormous legislative changes would
have to take place in order to make this shift. The water rights regime would have to be
abolished, and raising the need for a democratic engagement about how water should be
allocated. Conjunctive water use, better uniting surface water management and ground-
water recharge is another strategy that should be additionally pursued, both in rural and
While there are a number of possible routes to ensure that all water users in California have
long-term access to “reasonable and beneﬁcial” water use for the “public welfare” as is
written in the state’s Constitution, over a century of water law, consolidation of hundreds
of thousands of agricultural land in relatively few hands, an incremental and accreted
system of urban wate r provision, all will have to be unravelled. Crisis is always an oppor-
tunity for dramatic change, but leadership is required, and a leadership that will be backed
by legislation and profound regulatory change. In fact, California can provide water for
many, many uses, but not proﬂigately, and certainly not unequally.
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the authors.
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Berg, N., et al., 2015. Twenty-ﬁrst-century precipitation changes over the Los Angeles region.
Journal of Climate, 28, 401– 421.
Cheng, D. and Pincetl, S., Fragmented ﬂows: water and political ecology of governance in Los
Angeles County, submitted for review.
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Cope, M. and Pincetl, S., 2015. Geospatial water management information in urban Los Angeles
County. International Journal of Spatial Data Infrastructures Research, 9, 36– 58.
Famiglietti, J.S., et al., 2011. Satellites measure recent rates of groundwater depletion in California’s
Central Valley. Geophysical Research Letters, 38, L03403, doi:10.1029/2010GL046442.
Faunt, C.C., ed., 2009. Groundwater availability of the Central Valley Aquifer, California, U.S. Geol.
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