California’s drought may be the worst in nearly 120 years of formal record-keeping, but it’s neither the state’s first nor its last.

“As Californians, we need to be thinking about those droughts to come,” Stanford Woods Institute Co-Director Buzz Thompson (Law) said during a panel discussion, “The California Drought: Causes, Context and Responses,” organized by Water in the West, a joint program of Woods and the Bill Lane Center for the American West.

Before a standing room-only audience at the Feb. 25 event on Stanford’s campus, Thompson was joined by moderator Leon Szeptycki, executive director of Water in the West and Woods professor of the practice; Daniel Swain, a Stanford graduate student in environmental earth system science who studies atmospheric processes; and Tom Zigterman, associate director of Stanford’s Department of Water Services and Civil Infrastructure.

Swain provided meteorological context by first highlighting the “ridiculously resilient ridge,” Swain’s term for the atmospheric barrier that has forced most Pacific Ocean storms to north of California since 2012. The ridge is part of a “global series of anomalies” such as bitter winter weather in the Eastern U.S. and flooding in the U.K., Swain said.

Focusing on water issues closer to home, Zigterman provided an overview of water access, consumption and conservation on Stanford’s campus. Among the details of note:

  • Twenty campus buildings use recycled water
  • A new energy plant, set to come online this year, will reduce potable water use of power production by 70 percent
  • Thanks to measures such as plumbing retrofits and improved leak detection, campus water consumption has declined by 500,000 gallons per day compared to a decade ago

Although the ridiculously resilient ridge is, as its name implies, unusual in its duration, the phenomenon is nothing new to California. To deal with future droughts caused by such atmospheric conditions and other factors, Thompson said, the state has usually resorted to one or more fixes, each fraught with challenges from demand hardening to political controversy:

  • Conserving water (urban water use has declined since 1995 despite growing city populations)
  • Using water markets (e.g., cities pay farmers to fallow fields to free up water)
  • Storing wet-year water storage in lakes and other reserves
  • Replacing scant surface water with groundwater
  • Drawing on “ecological” water such as rivers in nature preserves

To more effectively prepare for and deal with drought, Thompson prescribed several approaches:

  • Carefully regulate groundwater use
  • Make water markets more open to facilitate easier water movement
  • Offset ecological water use with funding for habitat restoration and other efforts to offset impacts
  • Diversify water supply sources 
  • Invest in recharge pond systems that pump water into aquifers
  • Increase use of recycled/reused water
  • Charge water customers on a tiered system in which consumption beyond a base amount costs significantly more

Whatever approach California takes, it won’t be easy, Thompson said. “Like everything in the water field, it’s complicated,” he said in response to an audience question.