skip to main content

→ Top Stories:
Clean Power plan
Safe Chemicals

Anna Kheyfets’s Blog

The Cost of Sunny Skies: California's State of Emergency Drought

Anna Kheyfets

Posted January 23, 2014

, , , , , , , , ,
Share | | |

January 2014 in Los Angeles has felt like the best days of summer. While we like to show off our weather forecasts to our more unfortunate neighbors stuck in a second Polar Vortex – we are paying a price for this. Perpetual sunshine, without a cloud in the sky also means no rain. In case you forgot, winter in Los Angeles means a rainy season of December through February.

Last Friday, January 17, Governor Brown declared a Drought State of Emergency for California. I did not need Governor Brown to tell me we were in a drought; this was my sign:



Mammoth Mountain Peak Sign Post, December 2012

Mammoth Mountain Peak Sign Post, December 2013

The Sierra Nevada’s winter snowpack melts during the spring and summer and helps fill water reservoirs downstream – typically providing a third of the water used in California. The snowpack is at about 20 percent of normal average for this time of year – the stark difference can even be seen from space. This was a terrible year for me to have finally bought a Mammoth Mountain season pass.

 NASA-NOAA-satellitedrought.jpg(Image: NASA/NOAA satellite images show last year’s mediocre snowpack compared to this year’s barely-there snowpack.)

2013 was the driest year on record in cities across the West Coast. The table below shows average precipitation amounts and prior records - the database dates back to 1849, before California gained statehood.


2013 Rainfall Record (inches)

Old Record (Year)

Average Annual Rainfall (inches)

Records Begin

Los Angeles, CA


4.08” (1953)



San Francisco, CA


9.00” (1917)



Shasta Dam, CA


27.99” (1976)



Eugene, OR


23.56” (1944) 



2014 isn’t looking any better and is projected to become the new driest year on record, without a drop yet this year. Almost 90 percent of the state is in severe or extreme drought.

 USDroughtMonitor.jpg(Image: United States Drought Monitor.)

What Utilities Can Do

While the Governor can’t make it rain, the State of Emergency declaration serves to expand a  water conservation public awareness campaign (, directs state agencies to use less water and hire more firefighters, and gives state water officials more flexibility to manage supply throughout California under drought conditions.

Although we are getting less water from rain and snow, the Colorado River, and the Bay-Delta, new sources of clean water are actually growing. State and water agencies can prepare for drought by investing in a diverse portfolio of water supply solutions: efficiency, recycling, better groundwater management, and stormwater capture and reuse.

  • Water Efficiency: Water-efficient technologies like low-flow toilets and showerheads, WaterSense laundry machines, and high-tech irrigation systems dramatically lower water consumption per capita. Agencies can use innovative conservation incentive programs in which residents are provided a rebate, for switching to more efficient appliances or for converting water-loving lawns to water-efficient gardens.
  • Urban Rainwater and Stormwater Harvesting: Pocket parks, green roofs, grassy mounds, cisterns and other types of green infrastructure allow communities to capture rainwater where it falls—instead of letting it pour off streets, pick up pollution, flood sewage plants, and end up contaminating our beaches. The water can then be stored for use, evaporated back to the atmosphere, or filtered into the ground, where it can benefit vegetation and replenish groundwater supplies. An NRDC report found that catching rainwater falling on rooftops alone could meet between 21 and 75 percent of the water supply needs of several major U.S. cities.
  • Water Recycling and Re-Use: Cities are increasingly using recycled water, thoroughly treated “wastewater” meeting all state and federal drinking water standards, to irrigate parks and lawns and recharge groundwater supplies.
  • Better Groundwater Management and Groundwater Cleanup:  Efforts to clean up contaminated groundwater can provide valuable supplies while also creating underground storage capacity that can be used to capture urban stormwater and recycled wastewater for use in dry years.

Taken together, these solutions can provide more water than we ever exported from the Bay-Delta. By reducing reliance on imported water, local water utilities will be more prepared for the climate impacts already here and those on their way. Read Ben Chou’s blog for more on how California’s water management issues are impacted by climate change.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves close to 19 million people, announced that it has enough water to serve its customers this year without requiring cutbacks in use, despite receiving only a 5% initial allocation from the State Water Project (its primary source of water imported from northern California).  Five Southern California urban water agencies are planning to reduce or eliminate the use of imported water in favor of sustainable, local water supplies. But despite this relative good news, there is still a lot of work to be done to make California’s water system more sustainable.

Enter your California zip code here and find out more about where your water supply comes from and whether your water agency is taking steps to secure a reliable water future by investing in sustainable water supplies. If it’s not, urge your elected representatives to do more to care for this precious resource.

What You Can Do

The Governor also urged people to voluntarily curb their water use by 20 percent. It’s not difficult - fix leaks in faucets and toilets, put a bucket in the shower and use that water for your plants, turn the faucet off while brushing your teeth and shaving. Here are nine more simple steps you can take to conserve water at home to reduce your water footprint.

You should adopt these water efficiency and conservation strategies, even if you’re in the comfort of Metropolitan Water District’s healthy reserves or reading this while snowed in on the East Coast. While these solutions might not fix the lack of snow this snowboarding season, it is important to use water wisely and to develop more local resources to help ensure that we are able to provide for our future water needs.

Share | | |


Jim PeughJan 25 2014 06:20 PM

The San Diego Public Utilities Department is planning to provide 100 MGD of potable reuse water by some time around 2035. Your pie-chart for San Diego does not reflect this. You probably got your numbers from the San Diego County Water Authority. It hopes the City's potable reuse plan will stall so it can continue to supply a large portion of San Diego's water. Thus, they tend to not include it in their planning documents.

Comments are closed for this post.


Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

Feeds: Stay Plugged In