"We've been overdrafting groundwater for years," Gleick said. "If we were smart, we would have been recharging groundwater during wet years. But we haven't been smart."
In Southern California's Coachella Valley, it's not just cities and farms that have sucked down aquifer levels, it's also a string of trophy golf courses that attract celebrities and politicians — including President Obama on his recent California visit.
Of the more than 100 verdant courses in the hot desert valley, only a score irrigate with recycled water. Most pump groundwater or use supplies imported from the Colorado River.
"So much of this is built on a certain style of golf course and a way of life which Mother Nature might be telling us is hard to sustain," said Craig Kessler, director of governmental affairs for the Southern California Golf Assn.
The valley's golfing industry aims to reduce its water consumption by at least 10% and use more recycled water and river supplies to lessen groundwater withdrawals, he wrote recently in a newspaper opinion piece.
Although urban Southern California got serious about water conservation after the 1987-92 drought, flattening demand even as the population rose by several million, other parts of the state have a way to go.
A number of towns and cities, primarily in the Central Valley, are only now installing water meters in residences — and only because they have to do so under state requirements adopted a decade ago. Also, a 2009 law calls for a 20% statewide reduction in urban per capita water use by 2020.
No similar mandates have been imposed on agriculture, which accounts for roughly three-fourths of Californians' water use.
For many farmers, the answer to the state's frequent water shortages is building more reservoirs, the relaxation of endangered species protections in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and construction of a new delta diversion point and tunnel system that proponents say would allow the capture of more water in wet years.
Proposals for new reservoirs have been floated for years. But they remain controversial and funding is an unresolved obstacle.
Moreover, additional storage wouldn't necessarily guarantee supplies in a parched year like this, said Jeffrey Mount, a UC Davis professor emeritus of geology and senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. "Who were you not going to give water to two years ago and last year so that you could plan for this year?" Mount wondered.
Laurence Sterling, operations manager of Iron Horse Ranch & Vineyards outside Sebastopol in Sonoma County, isn't waiting for a big new reservoir.
His family got a deal on the vineyard during the 1976-77 drought and printed up bumper stickers that read, "Drink Wine, Not Water."
A dozen years ago, Sterling was offered the chance to store highly treated wastewater from the nearby town of Forestville in his reservoir. He jumped at the idea.
Though some might gag at the prospect of watering Chardonnay grapes with reclaimed sewage, Sterling said the treatment is so advanced the recycled supplies are cleaner than what comes out of a nearby creek — which was bone dry last month.
"To me, it's like drought insurance," he said, gazing at a flock of ducks resting in the wastewater pond.
"The feeling used to be, 'Whatever you do, just don't talk about wastewater,'" he said. "Now, we're in-your-face about it. 'Nyah nyah, we told you so.'"
Times staff writers Lee Romney and Rick Rojas contributed to this report.