UN SDG #12 Responsible Consumption and Production UN SDG #12
UN SDG #6 Clean Water and Sanitation UN SDG #6



Addressing the drought in California

California's water supply system was largely built a generation ago for a state with half the population, and in recent years California's key water supply resources in the Bay Delta and Colorado river are under stress from rising usage, climate change, and long-term geological damage.



Addressing the drought in California

California's water supply system was largely built a generation ago for a state with half the population, and in recent years California's key water supply resources in the Bay Delta and Colorado river are under stress from rising usage, climate change, and long-term geological damage.
people impacted
potential funding
the problem
Nature and Context

Faced with an unprecedented drought, California has spent over half a billion dollars in cash rebates for home owners to tear out their lawns the largest outdoor conservation program in American history. Yet this program's impact and the path to turf market transformation remain unclear. Household water usage ranges from a mean of 417 to maximum of 17,817 gallons per day, revealing the need to move beyond one-size-fits-all conservation estimates.

Symptoms and Causes

Nation's dependence on California Agriculture

California’s Central Valley produces nearly one quarter of the Nation’s food including crops like cereal grains, tomatoes, grapes, and a wide variety of nuts. During droughts, California relies heavily on groundwater for irrigation purposes. In a given year, farming activities consume between 25 million to 33 million acres of water, an amount so great that the water table has fallen by as much as 50 feet in some areas in the Central Valley. The floor of the valley is sinking as quickly as two inches per month causing significant damage to California’s infrastructure as a result of groundwater depletion (Foodtank).

Global Warming Changing Temperature of Ocean

Ocean temperatures largely dictate global weather patterns, including dry and wet conditions on land, and even tiny temperature fluctuations can have huge ripple effects on climate systems. Research shows that dramatic and prolonged temperature changes in the North Pacific and North Atlantic Oceans correspond directly to extreme weather patterns on land, including persistent droughts in North America. Fluctuating ocean temperatures are also behind El Niño and La Niña weather phenomena, with La Niña notorious for drying out California. Meanwhile, hotter surface temperatures on land lead to greater evaporation of moisture from the ground, which can increase the impact of drought (NRDC).

Dependence on Snow instead of Rain

Another factor influencing the drought is the form of precipitation – because of the way water resources are managed in California, snow is more beneficial than rain for drought relief. California relies upon the buildup of a snowpack in the winter to melt into runoff in the spring for the state’s water supply.

Unfortunately, the precipitation California now receives, which is two to seven degrees Fahrenheit warmer than usual for water in that part of the ocean, heats the atmosphere above it, making rain more likely than snow. During this drought, California has had record-high temperatures and record-low snowpack depths (Decoded Science).

the impact
Negative Effects

Short-Term Effects of Drought

During drought, declines in surface water flows can be detrimental to water supplies for agriculture and cities, hydropower production, navigation, recreation, and habitat for aquatic and riparian species. Several California Water Science Center streamgages have recently recorded streamflows that are below all-time record lows for specific days of the year. Annual runoff, which is calculated from this streamflow data, supplies many of our needs for water, Recent runoff estimates for California show measurements on par with 1930's and late 1970's droughts.

Unlike the effects of a drought on streamflows, groundwater levels in wells may not reflect a shortage of rainfall for a year or more after a drought begins. Despite reduced availability, reliance upon groundwater often increases during drought through increased groundwater pumping to meet water demands. If water is pumped at a faster rate than an aquifer is recharged by precipitation or other sources, water levels can drop, resulting in decreased water availability and deterioration of groundwater quality.

Ultimately, the surface water and groundwater form one interconnected hydrologic system. Nearly all surface water features - streams, lakes, reservoirs, wetlands, and estuaries - interact with groundwater. In addition to being a major source of water to lakes and wetlands, groundwater plays a crucial role in sustaining streamflow between precipitation events - especially during protracted dry periods. Although the contribution of groundwater to total streamflow varies widely among streams, hydrologists estimate the average contribution is somewhere between 40 and 50 percent (USGS).

Long-Term Effects

Excessive groundwater pumping and aquifer depletion can cause the aquifer system to compact, which can cause land to sink, permanent loss of groundwater storage in the aquifer system, and infrastructure damage. Overpumping in California's San Joaquin Valley aquifer system has caused renewed land-surface elevation drop that has resulted in serious operational and structural issues for surface water delivery networks, such as the Delta-Mendota Canal (DMC).

In coastal communities, the reversal of natural groundwater flows to the ocean as a result of groundwater pumping can cause seawater to enter the aquifer system. Seawater intrusion compromises groundwater quality and can be a costly problem to manage. The City of Santa Barbara is working with the California Water Science Center to update information on its groundwater supplies and to identify optimal water-resource management strategies to balance groundwater use with other sources of water.

Water allocations for river, wetland, wildlife, and fish restoration projects can be reduced or stopped altogether during severe drought. The California Water Science Center is part of the team tasked to restore river flows for salmon survival along the San Joaquin River. The Bureau of Reclamation reduced​ 2016​ flows earlier than planned because of critical water shortages.

Dry, hot and windy weather, combined with dry vegetation and a spark - either through human intent, accident or lightning - can start a wildfire. Drier-than-normal conditions can increase the intensity and severity of wildfires. In the aftermath of wildfires such as the 2013 Rim Fire, ash, woody debris and sediment can flow downstream from burn areas and contaminate water supplies. Flash flooding and mudslides in burn areas can also be damaging and deadly (USGS).

Economic Impact

Between 2012 and 2016, the state of California experienced record low rainfall and record high temperatures, both of which plunged the state into one of the worst droughts in its history. The drought affected all of the state’s economic sectors, but agriculture was particularly hard hit (National Geographic).

  • Total crop revenue losses: $45,000,000,000

  • Farmers who lost their jobs: 27,100

  • Total Economic Losses for California: $3.8 billion between 2014 and 2016

Success Metrics
  • Rework water collection methods to maximize rain water collection and lessen dependency on snow fall.

  • Educate population of California on ways to limit use of water for companies and in home.

  • Explore agriculture alternatives that are more productive yields with less water use.

who benefits from solving this problem
Organization Types
  • State of California

  • National Agencies and States dependent on California Agriculture

  • California Tourism Businesses

  • USDA

  • Environmental Protection Agency

  • Californians

  • American's Dependent on California's Agriculture

  • Firefighters in California or dispatched there

  • Climate Change Activists

  • Farmers

financial insights
Potential Solution Funding
Ideas Description

Promote farming practices and tools that maximize output with minimum water use:

aWhere's AI-supported platform offers real-time weather-based agricultural intelligence to farmers, companies, development agencies, and governments, providing insight and predictive analytics that effectively de-risk farming anywhere on Earth.

Akerscout helps improve the profitability and sustainability of every farm operation with advance crop diagnostics and agronomy. The directed crop scouting app helps identify and prioritize crop damage to address problem areas needing immediate attention. The app includes high-resolution aerial vegetation imagery, a yield calculator, pest management recording, scouting reports, and much more.

iSOYL is the pioneering new app that allows you to manage your precision crop production tasks direct from the tractor cab via your iPad. Variable rate application files created in MySOYL are seamlessly transferred to iSOYL ready to be used in the field. After application, data can be sent back directly to your crop management system, eliminating the need for written notes.

Share effective conservation goals and practices with partners globally:

Miradi - a Swahili word meaning 'project' or 'goal' - is a user-friendly program that allows nature conservation practitioners to design, manage, monitor, and learn from their projects to more effectively meet their conservation goals, following a process laid out in the Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation.

Ideas Value Proposition
Ideas Sustainability