SACRAMENTO — As the region soaked up much-needed rain Friday, academics and policymakers gathered in the state Capitol to discuss California’s looming water crisis at the UC Drought Summit.
“The time to plan for drought is when it’s raining, and it seems fortuitous that it’s raining today,” said Ruth Langridge, a professor from UC Santa Cruz.
About 35 panelists — academics, policymakers and lawyers — discussed and debated research focused on water management before a couple of hundred attendees. Barbara Allen-Diaz, a vice president of the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, kicked off the symposium with Mark Twain’s famous adage.
“Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over,” she said. “This was true then and it remains true today.”
With rain conspicuously absent this winter, this rainfall year is expected to be the third-driest in California’s recorded history and the drought now affects 100 percent of the state. Because 2011-13 precipitation levels also fell below average, reservoirs are strained, and record-low snowpack levels offer little hope for rejuvenation.
“We will not be able to drought-proof California,” said Jay Lund, a UC Davis professor who organized the summit. “Imagine if we tried to traffic-proof California, how wide our highways would have to be.”
The Indian Valley Reservoir, which supplies irrigation water to Yolo County, hovers at just 9 percent of its water line, said Tim O’Halloran, the general manager of the Yolo County Flood Control & Water Conservation District. The public agency will not sell any water to agriculture operations this year, and faces layoffs and furloughs because a majority of profit comes from water purchases.
While Lund recognized that agriculture will always suffer during droughts, he pointed out the industry now makes up less than 3 percent of California’s economy. Still, as the nation’s top agricultural producer, it requires about 80 percent of the state’s human-allocated water.
“If we don’t better manage our groundwater, we’re going to face a permanent reduction in agriculture profitability in this state,” Lund said.
Groundwater regulation, one of the most talked-about topics at the summit, remains controversial. Farmers and agricultural interests argue that it can be best managed at a local or individual level, but local use strains state resources. California and Texas are the only two states without statewide regulation, though that may change this year.
“I think we’re poised for a huge run on ground water,” warned Jay Famiglietti, a hydrology professor at UC Irvine. Langridge, a fellow panelist, encouraged the development of local ground- water reserves in partnership with the state.
Another difficulty in water management is that some 3,000 agencies manage California’s water, making it difficult for the state to set and enforce limits. In Yolo County, these include elected city officials, the flood control and water conservation agency, and the Bureau of Land Management, among others.
“California’s water is starkly depleted, extremely fragmented, quite local and very opaque,” said Stephanie Pincetl, the director of the California Center for Sustainable Communities at UCLA. “Water district boundaries are like accordions — they may not have the same boundaries from year to year.”
Here are some highlights from the conference:
* Glen MacDonald, a UCLA professor, explained that this drought shows similarities to one that lasted from 1130 to 1180 AD. While it isn’t yet clear if we’re at the beginning of a 50-year drought, he emphasized that the state needs to plan for drier and hotter decades to come.
* Peter Moyle of UCD discussed the impact droughts have on native fish — 67 percent of endemic species are found only in California, and seven have gone extinct. “Every drought cycle, native fishes have less opportunity to recover,” Moyle said. “When the going gets tough, wildlife loses.”
* Frank Loge, also of UCD, focused on how more and better data can help reduce water usage. For example, he helped design a database with information from water utility agencies. When customers were messaged with their water habits, he saw a 5 percent reduction in usage.
— Reach Elizabeth Case at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8052.