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Cross-Agency Collaboration in Addressing Record Drought in California

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Cross-Agency Collaboration in Addressing Record Drought in California

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Industries: Policy, Agriculture, Water Supply

Agencies: California Department of Water Resources, California Department of Fish & Wildlife, California State Water Resources Control Board, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Fish & Widlife Service, NOAA Fisheries

SUMMARY: California and federal agencies, faced with a historic drought, were tasked with allocating scare water supplies while balancing the needs of a multitude of water users and protecting against devastating economic loss. Traditionally, there is little inter-agency cooperation in water resource management, as agencies focus on managing their specialized spectrum of water use with limited consideration of unanticipated impacts to other sectors.

Drought is  difficult for any government agency to address because drought isn’t considered a traditional crisis that merits emergency action. In fact, drought unfolds so slowly that it often fails to garner the  attention required to properly mitigate its impacts.

The magnitude of the 2014 drought in California, however, led federal and state agencies to craft a unified operation plan to balance competing water needs in the state. The plan, titled “Central Valley Project and State Water Project Drought Operations Plan and Operational Forecast April 1, 2014 through November 15, 2014,” represents the collective effort of six state and federal agencies to balance multiple needs and achieve a “least-worst alternative” for the highest number of water users in the state.


  • 2014 marked the third year of drought in California. Remarkably little precipitation fell during the state’s rainy winter season, leading Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a drought state of emergency in mid-January 2014.
  • State and federal agencies have differing – and at times conflicting – priorities and legal responsibilities that impact water resource management in California during drought.
  • California is built on a highly engineered water delivery system, in which wildlife has adapted to survive. Failure to maintain the biological integrity of the state’s interconnected water delivery system would expedite the already rapid pace of species loss in California.
  • Increasing salinity in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is reducing the amount of available water for consumptive use, as well as damaging wildlife habitat.
  • Decreased river flows create conditions that damage cold water aquatic species and Delta smelt habitat. Actions to supplement environmental flows for the health of these species are perceived as being at odds with other water uses such as agriculture, energy or municipal.
  • Water transfers take about 60 days for the sale or lease of water rights to process in California, which can mean a lengthy delay getting water where it’s needed.


  • Six state and federal agencies released a unified operation plan: “Central Valley Project (CVP) and State Water Project (SWP) Drought Operations Plan and Operational Forecast April 1, 2014 through November 15, 2014”. This plan reflects the agencies’ unified efforts to balance multiple water needs during water shortage.
  • Drought began to be treated as an emergency crisis, on par with other natural disasters, requiring an all-hands-on-deck approach from multiple agencies’ leadership.
  • The plan established a "command-and-control" style drought operations team able to address issues in real time as drought unfolded.
  • In order to facilitate water transfers and exchanges, the State Water Board (the Board) approved a petition from the California Department of Water Resources and the US Bureau of Reclamation allowing them to combine historically separate, federally-operated CVP water with state-operated SWP water in time and place. This action allows water to be transferred between the SWP and the CVP without further regulatory action by the Board.
  • Public release of the plan encouraged transparency and accountability to water users. Stakeholders are informed of upcoming operations and what conditions will trigger certain actions in the plan. Early communication with stakeholders allowed water users to plan for upcoming modifications to water allocation, minimizing economic losses.
  • Communication between the agencies allowed key players to understand the objectives of other agencies, equipping those leaders to devise a collaborative strategy.

Critical Considerations and Concessions

Six steps taken by the State Water Board to address mutually agreed upon outcomes called for in the plan were:

  • Temporary Urgency Change Petitions: These petitions were issued to manage increasing salinity in the Delta. A variety of water rights orders were created to adapt to variable hydrological conditions. The plan allowed for expedited water rights orders and transfers within the federal and state legal framework to manage Delta salinity.
  • Urban Water Conservation Measures: The State Water Board created a public marketing campaign that displayed monthly water conservation statistics by city. By publicizing water conservation, the board created accountability, fostered conservation, and encouraged a cultural shift regarding water usage. The result of this campaign was an average 11% reduction in urban water usage, with some cities achieving up to a 30% reduction.
  • Water Transfers: Water transfers take an average of 60 days to process in California. Combining transfers of water from the state-operated SWP and federally-operated CVP, in places of combined use, expedited the transfer process to get water where it was needed more quickly.
  • Fish Flows: Three streams were mentioned as qualifying for minimum flow standards. The timing of minimum flows is equally as important as the amount, so collaboration between agencies and local water users was essential to maintain viable aquatic habitat. For example, Northern California rice growers accepted a delay in water delivery that allowed more water to remain in Lake Shasta, creating suitable river conditions for Chinook Salmon spawning runs.
  • Funding: Acquiring the necessary funding and utilizing it equitably was essential to addressing water management issues during the 2014 drought. As a part of drought relief measures, the state allocated $200 million in grants, along with an additional $800 million in loans, for water recycling programs.
  • Curtailment of Water Rights: The last time water rights curtailments were implemented in California was the 1977-1978 drought. Generally, if a basin is not fully adjudicated, it is not curtailed. This year curtailments did occur, but careful planning and consultation preceded curtailments.

Lessons Learned

  • State and federal leaders emphasized the importance of communication and collaboration between agencies and water users o achieve the multiple objectives of water use.
  • This approach will ideally lead to opportunities for multi-benefit water projects and programs in the future.
  • Additionally, state leaders discussed the importance of having the "political will" to make things work within the inherited policy and regulatory structure.

More Information

For more information, see the full Drought Operations Plan at this site. Or download a PDF of this case study.