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Water Board’s Role in Drought

Managing and protecting California’s water resources is complex—particularly during periods of drought—and requires coordination between federal, state, tribal, and local governments, as well as non-government organizations. We each have a role to play in sustaining California’s water supply and building the state’s resiliency against the effects of climate change. The Water Board’s drought responsibilities are focused in four key areas: conservation and preparation, water management, drinking water.

Conservation and Preparation

  • The State Water Resources Control Board, Department of Water Resources, Department of Fish and Wildlife, Natural Resources Agency, and Department of Food and Agriculture are led by veterans of the 2012–16 drought who learned the value of acting early and began coordinating a response to the dry conditions in November 2020.
  • The State Water Board conducted a series of stakeholder interviews in 2020 to better understand the effects of drought response actions taken during the 2012–16 drought. In total, participants provided over 500 unique comments, which were compiled into a report titled the Water Rights Drought Effort Review (WARDER) report. We are leveraging the insights and lessons learned as we plan for and respond to current drought conditions.
  • On March 22, 2021, the State Water Board issued dry-conditions letters to water right holders, urging them to plan for potential shortages by reducing water use and adopting practical conservation measures.
  • To improve water conservation and drought planning, in 2018 Governor Brown signed Senate Bill 606 (Hertzberg) and Assembly Bill 1668 (Friedman), collectively known as the “conservation as a way of life” laws. As directed by these laws, in coordination with the Department of Water Resources, the State Water Board is setting efficiency standards that water systems must apply to their entire service area annually based on indoor residential water use; outdoor water use; and commercial, industrial and institutional irrigation. New urban water use efficiency standards are to be adopted by the State Water Board by June 30, 2022.

Water Protection and Management

  • The State Water Board collects and analyzes water-use data submitted by water diverters to monitor intakes and overall watershed status. Receiving accurate and timely data is critical to the Water Board’s efforts to provide the information and tools needed to manage the state's water resources and help minimize potential drought impacts to business, homes, farms, and the environment.
  • During drought, water diverters may request Temporary Urgency Change Petitions (TUCPs) for short-term modification of their permit and license requirements for point of diversion, purpose of use, place of use or other terms and conditions of their permit or license. When making TUCP decisions, the Water Board must balance its mission to preserve and protect California’s water resources for beneficial uses with the real-time threat to water supply created by drought.
  • The right to divert surface water in California is based on the type of right being claimed and the priority date. Water right permits specify the season of use, purpose of use and place of use for the quantity of water authorized under the permit or license. When drought conditions persist, the State Water Board may notify certain water right holders in critically dry watersheds of the requirement to stop diverting water under their water right, based on their priority, a process known as curtailment. In times of drought and limited supply, the most recent (“junior”) right holder must be the first to discontinue use. Even more senior water right holders, such as some riparian and pre-1914 water right holders may also receive a notice to stop diverting water if their diversions are downstream of reservoirs releasing stored water and there is no natural flow available for diversion.

Water Quality

  • As part of its Safe and Affordable for Equity and Resilience (SAFER) Program, in April 2021, the Water Board completed the first-ever drinking water needs assessment to identify water systems and domestic wells that are failing or at risk of failing to meet the state’s drinking water standards. By working toward solutions with these systems, we are improving their drought resiliency. We will update the assessment annually.
  • Harmful Algal Bloom risks increase during drought. Harmful algal blooms, or HABs, occur when colonies of algae — simple plants that live in the sea and freshwater — grow out of control and produce toxic or harmful effects on people, fish, shellfish, marine mammals and birds. The human illnesses caused by HABs, though rare, can be debilitating or even fatal (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2016). The Water Boards monitor water sources for HABs and notify the public of associated health risks.

Financial and Technical Assistance

Other Agencies

Other agencies with a significant role in managing water supply and infrastructure during drought: