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Commentary: How California ignored lessons of an epic drought

Issue Date: September 15, 2021
By Justin Fredrickson
The New Melones Reservoir, pictured in 2018 before current drought conditions, was California’s last major water project. It was completed two years after the devastating 1976-77 drought.
Justin Fredrickson

The epic California dry spell that even not-so-old drought historians like to call attention to—1976-77—tracks uncannily close to our current exceptional drought conditions of 2020-21.

Sadly, California's statewide water system has changed almost not a whit since the 1970s. And stresses and strains on the system have mounted exponentially, leaving us arguably in a far worse place.

In the 45 years since the start of the 1976-77 drought to the alarming déjà vu of this year's crisis, California's once enviable statewide water system has steadily aged and deteriorated.

The last major water project was completed two years after the 1976-77 drought, when the United States Bureau of Reclamation wrapped up years of work on New Melones, the final reservoir of the mammoth Central Valley Project.

Somehow, few lessons from 1976-77 have taken hold. Ever since, California has been busy not adding much of anything. Instead, one non-decision and one new regulation at a time, the state gradually dismantled a relatively reliable water supply system—replacing it with, well, nothing.

Meanwhile, the Golden State's population has ballooned from over 20 million people to 40 million. And without new water resources for growing communities, California policymakers also steadily increased water demands to protect fish, wildlife and the environment at large. They placed major constraints on groundwater extraction as shrinking snowpack and more frequent and severe droughts further strained water resources for agriculture.

Despite overwhelming voter approval of the Proposition 1 water initiative in 2014, the signature project—Sites Reservoir—isn't anticipated until 2030. In the interim, California is unable to capture surface water in wet years that can be stored to improve drought resilience in dry years.

But over many years, California's major economic and urban population centers have been investing to bulletproof their own portions of the system. Well-heeled moralists in these fortified bastions of artificial water reliability have been pointing to the rest of our bone-dry state and wagging a disapproving finger.

But, if things continue along our current path, dry conditions may imperil coastal cities as well.

Just last month, the powerful Metropolitan Water District of Southern California issued a supply alert after U.S. officials declared a water shortage on a critical Los Angeles supplier, the Colorado River.

Meanwhile, it hasn't been the rest of state's fault that a long and almost unbroken string of decisions, indecisions and non-decisions left landlocked disadvantaged communities and California's massive agricultural sector—the Golden Goose of our Golden State—high and dry.

In the face of all of this decline, agriculture is doing what agriculture does and has always done—its level best with the increasingly scarce means and resources available to it. California agriculture is resourceful and resilient and will adapt. It's just hardly like the old days, when the notion of making California fruitful and productive had the state's wholehearted and enthusiastic support.

Today, people still like and, of course, need to eat. They just don't see or understand their food comes from somewhere and that somewhere takes a certain level of water reliability to keep it all going.

Last year, the Newsom administration created an action plan on water: the 2020 California Water Resilience Portfolio. As the drought and water crisis worsened, the administration in May announced a $5.1 billion water infrastructure chunk of a much larger estimated $100 billion post-COVID "Comeback" package.

Of that amount, nearly $1.8 billion goes to clean water for small and disadvantaged communities. That's an important priority for many rural and agricultural areas, but doesn't include any direct water supply for parched California farms.

Over $1.2 billion is earmarked for various fish and habitat purposes—including $500 million for euphemistically labeled "multi-benefit land repurposing to support growers." To translate, that means converting dried-up farmland into something else.

For actual agriculture-related water supplies, the spending plan includes $300 million for local groundwater sustainability, $200 million for regional water conveyance, $220 million for Salton Sea restoration, $60 million for a state farm water conservation program and $91 million for improved weather and runoff forecasting. The total proposed spending —$870 million—only modestly fortifies diminishing farm water supplies.

Future generations may well one day look back, aghast, on a remarkable tale of multiple generations in California having had an astounding lack of vision and failure to plan, lead and act.

California can no longer afford to stand by listlessly or undertake partial measures as the state lurches from drought to drought as our already inadequate infrastructure crumbles.

If California is truly serious about being a leader in confronting the climate juggernaut, it must move forward with historic investments and vision. We can no longer afford to be the enablers—through lack of action— of tomorrow's foreseeable water crises.

(Justin Fredrickson is environmental policy analyst for the California Farm Bureau. He may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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