California drought: No rain, but ‘the sky is not falling’

Flowing 96 miles from its headwaters to the ocean, the Santa Ana River provides a glimpse of water management in the future.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

The Santa Ana River is a robust and beautiful sight these days. Five miles west of the Prado Dam in Yorba Linda, the water has cut a narrow channel in a sandy bed and courses briskly over submerged rocks and tree limbs.

The water is a complicated cocktail that comes from many sources. As it flows 96 miles from its headwaters to the ocean, it provides a glimpse of the future: a picture of water management set into place nearly 50 years ago that can be seen as a model for California’s long effort to keep the state from withering away.

The rushing burble, quickening through narrow shallows, mingles with bird song and the sound of passing cars whose drivers, if they have paid attention to reports of California’s demise, must be astonished by the sight of the water below.


National headlines ask: “The End of California?” News stories track the diminishing snowpack and disappearing reservoirs, and a small fish in the Delta is scapegoated, almond growers and consumers are shamed and the mythology of Western resolve is questioned.

The crisis has led many to wonder whether the state has lost its historic resilience.

But the drama hides reality and for those who have studied California’s long relationship with its water, the drought is serious but hardly a disaster.

“The sky is not falling,” said Jeffrey Mount, senior fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California.

“We shouldn’t be complacent, but we don’t need to be panicking,” said Jay Lund, director for the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis. “Look at Mediterranean climates around the world — look at how many people they support, the economy they support, the agriculture they support — and you’ll see that California does better than anyone else.

“If people are just now understanding that California can be a dry place,” Lund said, “then we must have been doing something right in terms of urban water delivery.”

The legacy of this drought, Californians deeply involved in water issues say, is that the state will adjust, as it always has following a dry period, and this time the adjustment will mean managing water across the state much like the Santa Ana River is managed.


Less river than repository, the Santa Ana is a natural depression carved in the flood plain, a collection site for treated waste water, precipitation and urban runoff.

If water had DNA, the genetic material of this rivulet could be traced as far as Wyoming and as close as the San Bernardino Mountains. It has flowed through the trailer parks of Beaumont and Banning, the warehouses of Rancho Cucamonga, the golf courses of the Moreno Valley and the strip malls of Riverside. The high-rises of Fashion Island lie along its course.

By the time it reaches the Pacific Ocean, it will have been monitored, treated, measured and priced by three flood-control districts, 18 waste water districts and 40 retailers responsible for distributing it to the nearly 6 million residents of this vast watershed.

In Orange and Anaheim, the river will broaden and slow into a series of settling ponds to disappear into the aquifer and later be extracted for other uses. At this stage of its journey, the water belongs to the Orange County Water District, but its entire progress has been watched by the larger entity — the Santa Ana River Watershed Project Authority, better known as SAWPA.

Established in the late 1960s, the water authority was created to ensure cooperation among competing water districts and their constituents. Over the years, the agency has evolved to provide stewardship over the region’s water supplies from Big Bear Lake to Newport Beach.

“SAWPA’s unique,” said Steven Moore, a member of the State Water Resources Control Board. “The investments it has made over the decades have created a system more resilient than other parts of the state. They have essentially created an insurance policy for drought.”


Water management in California has always had to contend with a fractured landscape, long divided by history and geography, and years of clear and cloudless skies have only heightened antagonisms and spurred innovation.

But nothing focuses political will better than a disaster.

Drought in the 1930s created the Central Valley Project. Drought in the 1950s led to the State Water Project. Drought in the 1970s spurred efforts at urban conservation and the state’s Drought Emergency Water Bank came out of drought in the 1980s.

The calamity that created the Santa Ana River Watershed Project Authority took place in a courtroom over the course of six years.

In 1963, the Orange County Water District, having measured a diminished flow of water in the Santa Ana River, filed a lawsuit against other districts upstream that had increased their diversions.

About 4,000 parties were named, and after the settlement in 1969, the four major water districts in Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties decided to create an agency to settle their disputes. It would be less expensive than going back to court.

The water authority today occupies a two-story office building in Riverside. The mission, according to general manager Celeste Cantú, is to help manage the hydrology of a region with more than 2,650 square miles.

The water world is defined by territorial bureaucracies — each water district for its own — but the water authority makes the case for a more holistic approach.

A basin, or a watershed, is far larger than most water districts. To improve conservation and use water effectively across an entire basin, districts must work together.

“If you are a really tiny district, you can’t have the financial wherewithal or the geographic wherewithal” to manage entire watersheds in a way that captures and uses and reuses the water creatively and efficiently, Mount said.

That’s the advantage SAWPA enjoys. It tracks water use across the watershed, from source to sink.

“If every drop counts, then you have to count every drop, and the state has been stunningly sloppy about how it measures water,” Mount said. “One element of conservation is good accounting.”

By counting every drop, the agency tracks how water is used throughout the watershed, and by tracking its use, the agency can ensure that the water is clean and safe to be used multiple times.

With its large reach, the agency can pull in funds from bonds, loan programs and the member districts, allowing them to develop an array of water sources they couldn’t approach individually.

In addition, the water authority has helped develop new forest management policies in the San Bernardino Mountains to protect streams and drainage. It has helped fund desalination facilities in Riverside County that remove natural accumulations of salt. It has helped purchase land for the creation of spreading ponds in Orange County to revive the aquifer, and it has initiated studies of the chemical composition of its water, looking for trace impurities throughout the watershed.

“SAWPA is the best example of how to organize water management at the basin scale,” Mount said.


For almost 150 years, California’s water policy had been based on creating economic incentives for individuals and companies to develop water resources, and with the help of the federal and state funding, nearly 1,400 dams and 1,000s of miles of aqueduct were built.

As a result, California has the most complex water resources system in the world due to the achievements of such engineering and political titans as William Mulholland and Michael O’Shaughnessy, whose efforts brought water to Los Angeles from the Owens Valley and to San Francisco from Yosemite.

But experts agree, future droughts will not be resolved by laying down more concrete or adding more major infrastructure.

“It’s hard to see how we can engineer our way out of this,” said John Hall, a professor of engineering at Caltech who is studying the state’s water resources..

In the absence of infrastructure projects, water planners are looking to consumers to conserve and to themselves to rethink how water is managed.

The state’s approach to water has long been based on one-time usage: extraction and application. Once collected, once used, water was then forgotten.

“In the 20th century, water was considered a commodity like oil,” said Cantú. “It was essentially mined, extracted and sold, and like oil, it was assumed that once consumed, it was no longer useful.”

That philosophy, Cantú said, often pitted one water district against another, and in a landscape as crowded as California, that can lead to inefficiency.

Among California’s 58 counties, the state has a disproportionately high number of water agencies. The State Water Resources Control Board estimates 3,000 water service providers, 1,100 wastewater entities, 600 irrigation districts, 140 reclamation districts, and 60 flood control agencies.

“One problem is that the agencies compete with one another, rather than work together,” said Joe Grindstaff, general manager of the Inland Empire Utilities Agency, a water district that is a member of SAWPA. “That takes a lot of resources.

“My belief is that if you look at California in 50 years, instead of thousands of agencies, we might have 50 to 100,” Grindstaff said.

As Cantú said, “California doesn’t get through this by working separately. We need to collaborate and blur boundaries.”

Take a stroll along the Santa Ana River. Follow the trail, funded in part by the water authority, that runs from the mouth of the river in Huntington Beach through San Bernardino County, and you might see a picture of California’s future.

Twitter: @tcurwen


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