What Canada can learn from California’s drought and groundwater laws

The Uvas reservoir in Santa Clara, CA. Photo courtesy of Don DeBold.

By Randy Christensen, Oliver M. Brandes and Rosie Simms

California’s unprecedented and devastating four-year drought has received widespread, international media attention. Its drought is so severe that the state has ordered cities and towns to reduce water use by 25%, and has begun literally turning the tap off on water rights holders. This drought is profoundly affecting California’s communities and their quality of life, the economy, and the health and function of streams, rivers, lakes and aquifers throughout the state.

A new research report entitled “California’s Oranges and B.C.’s Apples? Lessons for B.C. from California Groundwater Reform,” was released in June by the POLIS Water Sustainability Project, based at the University of Victoria, and Ecojustice. This report provides a detailed comparison between British Columbia and California regarding groundwater management. Drawing from California’s drought experience and recent groundwater reform efforts, this research provides a number of key findings and insights that reveal priorities for B.C. to ensure a comprehensive and effective approach to sustainable groundwater management.

Lessons for Canadian communities

However, beyond specific lessons for B.C., the California experience also offers critical insights into drought planning and water management that are relevant to communities across Canada.

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  1. Regional droughts can have serious national consequences – California’s Central Valley is one of the world’s most productive agricultural areas. The state produces nearly half of U.S.-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables and is considered to be the world’s fifth largest supplier of food. California’s ability to sustain this massive agricultural industry, however, is contingent on access to sufficient water for irrigation. It accounts for as much as 80% of the total human water use in the state. This year alone, drought is expected to cause agricultural losses of $3 billion in California.
Farms in California
Agriculture accounts for as much as 80% of total human water use in California.

Given the importance of California’s agriculture to food supply, the impacts of the drought extend far beyond state borders. In today’s interconnected global economy, regional droughts aren’t just about local environmental impacts, they are matters affecting national economies.

Depending on the region of Canada, a drought could have significant effects on many different sectors, including agriculture, energy production, fisheries and tourism, as well as impacting cities and towns.

  1. Once in a drought, it’s too late to do many of the things that are most needed – Once an area is in the midst of a full-blown drought, many critical aspects of water management and planning fall to the wayside as crisis response takes over. While emergency measures such as mandatory conservation requirements are certainly important, they are too-little, too-late in terms of preventing ecosystem damage and implementing sustainable water management regimes.

Drought preparedness in Canada must include proactive planning and governance measures implemented well before crisis hits. These measures include establishing methods to determine and protect environmental flow needs, building robust water use monitoring and reporting systems, and implementing pricing regimes that encourage water use efficiency and conservation.

Requirements to build more water-efficient buildings and infrastructure, as well as replacing wasteful fixtures and appliances, take years if not decades to implement.

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