RFF on the Issues

RFF on the Issues: Effectively Managing California's Ongoing Drought

Oct 21, 2016 | Peter Nelson

Regulators in California lifted a statewide order to cut water consumption by 25 percent earlier this year, although the drought continues. Across the state, there is widespread concern that the May action to ease the mandatory limit was premature. At the time, California’s Water Resources Control Board pointed to winter rainfall that replenished historically low reservoirs in Northern California, saying that emergency measures were no longer necessary, but meteorologists estimate it will take years to recover from the ongoing drought. And it is not clear that Californians will continue to be mindful of the effort to conserve water absent mandatory restrictions.

“Voluntary policies are not a large enough ‘stick’ to encourage households to turn off their sprinklers,” according to research by RFF Fellow Casey Wichman and his coauthors. Their analysis of household-level consumption data from North Carolina during a severe 2007 drought indicates that the state’s mandatory policies produced greater water conservation—and “effectively reduced consumption among the biggest water users while remaining equitable across households with different incomes.”

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