October 22, 2014
California Drought: Water Supply and Conveyance Issues
Nearly 60% of the state of California is experiencing
“exceptional drought”—the most severe drought
classification (see Figure 1, below). The 2014 water year
ended September 30 as the third-driest year on record in
terms of precipitation. Additionally, precipitation during the
winter and spring months in 2013 was the lowest on record,
leaving water storage reservoirs unusually low going into
2014. Water deliveries to water districts receiving water
from federal and state facilities throughout the state were
cut due to hydrological and regulatory factors. Some areas
relying on groundwater saw wells go dry. The National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts belownormal precipitation again for this winter.
A drought declaration made by California Governor Jerry
Brown on January 17, 2014, remains in effect (see
Figure 1. California Drought Conditions (Oct. 14, 2014)
refuges. The State Water Project (SWP) announced
cutbacks to 2014 water deliveries—no new water was
delivered to most contractors except in cases of public
health and safety. The SWP primarily provides water to
M&I users and some agricultural users. Major CVP and
SWP pumps that supply water for central and southern
California are located at the southern portion of the
Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers Delta confluence with
San Francisco Bay (Bay-Delta). Approximately 22 million
people receive water from the Bay-Delta annually.
What’s at Stake?
The widespread nature of drought conditions, coupled with
low water supplies in the state’s major reservoirs and
regulatory restrictions on CVP and SWP operations to
protect water quality, fish, and wildlife, mean that many
sectors and areas have been affected. Many cities and
counties have instituted water rationing, and the governor
called for consumers to cut water use by 20%.
Congress funds and oversees the Central Valley
Project, which in a normal water year delivers, on
average, approximately 7 million acre-feet of water
annually. CVP 2014 water deliveries have been
severely curtailed due to drought and other factors.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced disaster
declarations for most California counties (see Figure 1) and
other areas in the Southwest. Such declarations trigger the
availability of emergency loans designed to partially
compensate for losses for producers who cannot obtain
Meanwhile, the Bureau of Reclamation (Department of the
Interior) announced cutbacks to Central Valley Project
(CVP) water users—including unprecedented cutbacks to
senior water rights contractors and zero deliveries to many
other contractors. The CVP supplies water to hundreds of
thousands of acres throughout the state, as well as to some
municipal and industrial (M&I) water users and wildlife
California is the country’s largest agricultural producer in
terms of cash farm receipts—accounting for 11% (nearly
$45 billion) of the U.S. total in 2012, the last year for which
data are available (see http://www.cdfa.ca.gov/statistics/).
The drought has affected crop and rangeland conditions on
non-irrigated land and required livestock producers to use
supplemental hay and grain. Hundreds of thousands of
acres have gone fallow because sufficient water was not
available. However, fruit and nut orchards continue to need
irrigation during drought. The effects of drought on
California agriculture could have ramifications beyond the
state, with reduced supplies and higher product prices for
some commodities—particularly those for which California
is the primary producer (e.g., almonds). For example,
California produces 65% of the nation’s non-citrus fruit and
nuts. On the other hand, where substitutions exist for some
crops and are readily available, prices may not be
Availability of groundwater or purchase of water from
others may help some weather the dry conditions; however,
with every corner of the state categorized as a primary
drought disaster area, it is not clear how much water will be
available. Some areas are already experiencing low
groundwater levels and subsidence due to increased
groundwater pumping in 2014 and preceding dry years.
Further, this could be the beginning of a longer-term
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California Drought: Water Supply and Conveyance Issues
drought, in which case relying on diminishing groundwater
supplies may not be an option. A statewide groundwater
management law was enacted in September 2014.
In-state power production, recreation, air quality, and fish
and wildlife also are likely to be affected. California hosts
many recreational reservoirs, river rafting opportunities,
and recreational and commercial fisheries that could be at
risk. The state contains many threatened and endangered
species and provides significant waterfowl habitat along the
Pacific Flyway—critical to migrating birds. Certain water
levels (and temperatures) are needed in waterways and
lakes to maintain aquatic ecosystems and species viability.
Figure 3. Snow Water Content, Percent of April 1
Average Throughout Year (June 9, 2014)
Current Hydrologic Status
Water levels at California’s largest reservoirs are well
below their historic averages for fall. The largest reservoir,
Lake Shasta, is at 41% of average for this time of year.
Figure 2. Five Largest Reservoirs (Oct. 16, 2014)
% Historical Average (for rate)
% Total Capacity
San Luis Reservoir
Water content in snow in the Sierra-Nevada Mountains was
well below normal (see Figure 3) through June 2014. Such
levels are important because snowpack constitutes a major
part of water storage for the state. Runoff from snowpack
supplies major reservoirs; however, if there is no snowpack
or low water content, reservoirs that are already low from
last year’s low water supply will not refill.
Complicating the hydrologic situation is a complex web of
regulatory requirements on CVP and SWP operations.
These requirements affect how much water is delivered
from the projects. Regulatory requirements include certain
releases of water from reservoirs and limits on pumping
from the Bay-Delta to protect threatened and endangered
species, as well as for state water quality regulations. The
state system of water rights priorities and Reclamation
contracts also play a role in water allocation during drought.
While some are calling for modification of some
regulations, others fear changes may risk irreversible harm
to fish species. Furthermore, it is unclear how much water
would be available if these restrictions are lifted and
whether the amount would have a significant effect on
alleviating the impacts of drought.
Source: California Data Exchange Center
While much of drought planning and response happens
locally, the federal government has historically helped
farmers in times of drought. (See CRS Report RS21212.)
Additionally, the Administration in November 2013
announced a National Drought Resilience Partnership to
help prepare for and reduce drought impacts. However,
there is no overarching federal drought policy or program.
Because of the CVP’s importance to water users and
resources throughout the state, Congress also plays a role in
CVP water management. Congress addressed the situation
in part by including provisions to facilitate water banking,
water transfers, and new storage projects in the 2014
Consolidated Appropriations Act (P.L. 113-76). The act
also extended through 2017 authorization for the
Emergency Reclamation States Drought Relief Act, which
provides for assistance to 17 western states and Hawaii.
Other legislation under consideration (e.g., H.R. 1927, H.R.
3964, and S. 2198) could have significant effects on federal
agency responses, including actions related to public safety,
human health, economic productivity, and the viability of
threatened and endangered species in California.
Betsy A. Cody, email@example.com, 7-7229.
www.crs.gov | 7-5700