Op-Ed: How much water does California have left?


Southern California water managers are doing such a great job that you would hardly know we are in the midst of the worst drought since record-keeping began in the late 1800s.

Our lush, well-watered landscapes look as healthy and inviting as ever. Our fountains continue to shoot water in great arcs. Our freshly washed cars remain shiny and clean. On the surface, that’s amazing. Kudos to our regional and local water districts for an incredible job in “drought-proofing” Southern California.

However, excellence in water management has a real downside: a false sense of security. It is exceedingly difficult to convey the urgency of the situation when most everything around us is green.


The harsh reality is that everything here was fine. We used to have a lot of water in California, but now we don’t. Without a few successive winters of above-average precipitation, we have only enough water in storage to get through the next 12 to 18 months, and that’s it. Beyond that, many of our state and local water managers have thrown up their hands because they just don’t know where our water will come from.

That is because drought-proofing is a misnomer. There is no proof against drought when there is no snowmelt to feed the rivers that normally refill our reservoirs, or when groundwater — our buffer against dwindling surface water supplies — continues to disappear with overpumping.

As hopes for a boost to next winter’s rains fade with recent forecasts for a weaker El Niño event than first reported, 2014 is on track to become California’s warmest year, and among its driest, on record.

It is time for Southern Californians to wake up and smell the dusty, dry air that has turned the rest of the Golden State brown. We are in big trouble too; we just can’t see it through the overwatered foliage.

There are three important steps that our region can take to have an immediate effect on sustaining our water supply beyond just 12 to 18 months.

The first is awareness of our water supply situation. Our water has three main sources: snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada, local groundwater and imported water from the Colorado River basin.


Unfortunately, all three of these sources are drying up. The amount of available freshwater from each has declined significantly during the drought. Even worse, best available forecasts indicate that the declines will continue for decades.

Second, it is time, right now, for mandatory water restrictions, with enforcement and fines for violations. If we must be forced to immediately cut back on water use, then so be it.

Voluntary measures such as Gov. Jerry Brown’s emergency request to reduce water use by 20% are clearly not working. Coastal communities in Southern California managed to reduce water use by only 5% between January and May. Los Angeles, Long Beach and San Diego all recorded increases of between 1% to 4%.

Third, we must press for better management of the state’s groundwater supply. As the major source of irrigation water in California, and the critical reserve for all during drought, groundwater accounts for roughly 65% of the statewide water supply. Consequently, most of our aquifers are being rapidly depleted, with little regard for meeting future needs. These include the southern half of the vast Central Valley aquifer system, aquifers in Paso Robles, the Coachella Valley, the Imperial Valley and more.

The governor is intent on sustaining groundwater reserves for generations to come. A draft document proposing new legislation that will finally bring groundwater resources under the state water management umbrella is on the governor’s website. It includes provisions to implement monitoring and management plans at the local level. Passage of some form of this legislation — and soon — is absolutely essential to ensure a sustainable water future for California.

This is a real emergency that requires a real emergency response. If Southern California does not step up and conserve its water, and if the drought continues on its epic course, there is nothing more that our water managers can do for us. Water availability in Southern California would be drastically reduced. With those reductions, we should expect skyrocketing water, food and energy prices, as well as the demise of agriculture.


We should not expect to be saved by sewage recycling, or desalination, or some miracle technology. As fundamental as they are to managing the region’s water supply, the scope of this drought and our demand for water far outstrip what current capabilities can provide.

Imagine a disaster movie in which 22 million people are told that they have only 12 to 18 months of water left. Unless Southern Californians pull together, we will be making that movie.

Jay Famiglietti is the senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech and a professor of Earth system science at UC Irvine.