Rain is Good News, but Doesn’t Change California’s Dire Drought Outlook

Droughtsville, California, is in trouble.

Its water supply is endangered as multiple crises intensify: worsening droughts, competition for scarce supplies, sea level rise, groundwater contamination, earthquakes, wildfires and extreme weather. All of these factors, and more, threaten Droughtville’s ability to provide clean water to its residents.

The city is fictional, but the threats are not.

A typical city in California faces multiple stressors that put drinking water supplies at risk — drought just happens to be the focus now. Huge volumes of water are transported hundreds of miles to Southern California and Bay Area cities via aqueducts. Other municipal water is stored underground in aquifers, potentially susceptible to contaminants and seawater invasion. And the intricate network of treatment plants and pipelines that carry water to people’s faucets is vulnerable to an array of natural and human-made threats.

CalMatters delved into the details of what scientists and planners have determined could jeopardize the water supply of a typical California city — and some potential solutions.


While scientists are still researching connections between water, climate change and seismic activity, the threat of earthquakes looms large in California. Damage to water sources and systems can reverberate from hundreds of miles away.

All it would take to inflict widespread damage on water systems is an earthquake of 6.0 magnitude or greater centered in the “right” place. Quakes of that magnitude can crack pipes, damage storage systems or release natural gas or oil into aquifers.

Southern California’s reliance on water imported from outside the region puts its supplies at great risk from quakes. Parts of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the California Aqueduct and the Colorado River Aqueduct — all of which bring water to Los Angeles — traverse the San Andreas Fault. A 7.8-magnitude quake on the fault would put the three aqueducts out of commission, cutting off some of the city’s water deliveries for as long as two years, according to a scenario evaluated by the city. Repairs could stretch out years. Because these aqueducts supply most of Southern California’s water, officials would have little choice but to impose mandatory water reductions.

Other examples:


Wildfires can directly harm water supplies, such as burning down storage structures and melting pipes, but also indirectly harm by sending up clouds of smoke and loosening soil, which washes debris and ash into watersheds. Wildfires even in remote parts of the state can pollute water that ends up in city taps.

  • Water samples collected from drinking water in Santa Rosa after the 2017 Tubbs and 2018 Camp Fires tested positive for benzene, a cancer-causing chemical. State water officials said the contamination most likely came from overheated pipe materials, as well as smoke and combustion byproducts.
  • Wildfires can lead to ash and sediment running off into water sources when it rains. The Mokelumne watershed, in particular, is at risk of this.
  • The 2015 Butte Fire burned a 12,000-acre section of a watershed, then winter storms carried debris from the fire into the river and reservoir. The US Geological Survey estimates likelihoods and magnitudes of such post-fire debris flows.
  • Water systems also depend on power to maintain operations, making them vulnerable to public safety power shutoffs and unplanned outages.

And then there are megafires: Super hot and dry conditions combine to create a complex of super-intense fires. In 2020 California experienced megafires that burned three Sierra Nevada watersheds important to California’s water supply. Runoff, erosion and sediment could occur near areas with moderate and high soil burn severity, although effects may not be seen for several years.


Large storms can overwhelm flood control channels and damage pipelines and other infrastructure. Rivers carry debris and sediment to reservoirs, where they can clog filtration systems, especially in burned areas. This was a concern in Fresno after the 2020 Creek Fire.

Storm surges and large volumes of rainfall can overwhelm unprepared city systems. An ARkStorm scenario, developed by the US Geological Survey, envisions a series of hurricane-level atmospheric rivers from the tropical Pacific slamming into the US West Coast over several weeks. Patterned after the Great Flood of 1861-1862, which put the Central Valley under as much as 15 feet of water, the ARkStorm scenario could flood thousands of square miles of urban and agricultural land, costing some $725 billion.

Chemical contaminants

A variety of industrial chemicals contaminate drinking water supplies. “Forever chemicals” have polluted well water throughout California, most often near airports, military bases and landfills. These perfluorinated chemicals are linked to kidney cancer and other serious health conditions in people drinking contaminated water.

Other examples of industrial contaminants found in water supplies are perchlorate from defense contractors and flame retardants from building materials.

In addition, copper, arsenic and other elements naturally found in soil can leach into groundwater and plumbing systems. From 2015 through 2018, 4,460 active drinking water sources were reported to contain arsenic.

Lead, which can alter children’s brain function and trigger learning disabilities, mostly seeps into water from home pipes and faucets. EdSource created an interactive map for checking the lead levels in schools’ drinking water.

Urban runoff

After rainstorms — particularly the “first flush” of California’s wet season — pollutants wash into streams and other surface waters. Stormwater and other urban runoff can deposit trash, oil, pesticides, fertilizers, sewage and sediment into streams that provide drinking water.

The largest source of runoff in California is its more than 50,000 miles of highways. Caltrans is required by the state Water Resources Control Board to control stormwater runoff to the “maximum extent practicable.” As a result, Caltrans monitors runoff and takes steps to prevent contaminants from flowing off roads during rainstorms, such as preventing erosion and removing debris.

The state water board also regulates construction sites and industries through permits that require companies to develop plans to prevent runoff.

Nevertheless, anything that is dumped into a street or spread onto a lawn or garden can wind up in lakes, rivers and streams.

Sewage spills

Spills from sewage treatment plants and sewer lines contaminate surface waters with viruses, bacteria and other contaminants from wastewater that is flushed down drains and toilets.

For instance, flooding at the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant in El Segundo in the summer of 2021 spilled 17 million gallons of sewage into Santa Monica Bay, contaminating beaches. But the spill also triggered water supply problems because local officials had to divert clean drinking water to uses, such as parks and golf courses, that were normally served by the recycled water treated at the Hyperion plant.

Rising sea levels and floods

As the Arctic melts from global warming, oceans are rising. And this could cause saltwater to seep into coastal groundwater basins, requiring more treatment of drinking water. Rising sea levels also could increase storm surge flood events. Low-lying sewage treatment plants, such as in the Bay Area, are at risk of flooding as seas rise.

Large amounts of water dumped on a city in hours also can trigger major flooding, another key concern for water systems. In addition to direct infrastructure damage, such as levee failure, flooding can contaminate supplies and wash out water mains. Researchers mapped 440 hazardous facilities in California that could flood from sea level rise by 2100, disproportionately exposing lower-income communities of color to dangerous chemicals.


Lack of rainfall and snowpack stresses both of California’s main sources of drinking water: underground aquifers and surface water.

The 2021 water year (October 2020 to September 2021) was the state's second driest year on record and driest year since 1924 in terms of statewide precipitation, according to the California Department of Water Resources. Read more about the impacts of drought from CalMatters: ​​Running out of water and time: How unprepared is California for 2021’s drought?

During droughts, water deliveries are slashed for growers, urban residents and industry. Next year’s initial allocation from the State Water Project, the 700-mile system that channels water from Northern California rivers, is 0%. That means water agencies serving 27 million Californians and 750,000 acres of farmland can only expect water from the project if they require it for minimum health and safety needs.

“Parts of Southern California depend on this supply almost exclusively for their water. We are working…to make sure residents and businesses understand the severity and complexity of the situation and are responding by reducing their water use as much as necessary,” said Adel Hagekhalil, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District, which provides imported water to 19 million people in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties.

Reduced allocations from the massive state project are becoming the norm, not the exception: The last time there was a 100% allocation was in 2006.


Bad actors can target water supplies in different ways. Sometimes it’s a physical attack: In January 2021, a hacker tried to poison a Bay Area water treatment plant, according to reporting from NBC News.

But cybersecurity is increasingly important as more water systems rely on remote access to operators to control them. Ransomware attacks, where cybercriminals hold online systems hostage until victims pay a ransom, have already come for California schools and local governments. Water systems are potential targets to be taken offline.

When water systems detect a potential security breach or identify threats, they are supposed to consult with local law enforcement and report to the Water Information Sharing and Analysis Center.

Solutions: How are cities coping with these threats?

All of these threats to Droughtsville’s water supply are intimidating. So what can the city do to cope?

There are short-term coping mechanisms, such as mutual aid from surrounding areas and emergency proclamations. But there also are long-term ideas like building desalination plants and recycling, storing and capturing more water.

Recycling more water

Recycled water is treated sewage. In most cases, it’s used for irrigation or recharging groundwater basins. San Jose operates a recycling system and distributes treated wastewater for non-potable purposes, such as agriculture; industrial cooling and processing; and irrigation of golf courses, parks and schools.

The Orange County Water District has a longstanding, state-of-the-art project that recycles wastewater into drinkable supplies stored in its groundwater basin. It takes water that would've been discharged into the ocean and purifies it to drinking water standards. The water is then injected into the aquifer to replenish it for wells.

The Santa Clara Valley Water District plans to develop highly purified water for potable reuse by 2025.

Mutual aid

The state encourages public water systems to join a local or regional mutual aid organization, which can help find equipment and personnel after a disaster. For example, after a 2014 earthquake damaged water infrastructure in Napa, the California Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network (CalWARN) activated, allowing nearby utilities to assist with repairs.

Water utilities may share information and infrastructure, and even supplies where needed. For example, Sacramento-area water agencies are collaborating on an underground “water bank” to be filled with excess water during wet years and used during dry years.

A number of emergency tools become available at the local, state and national level:


Desalination can turn seawater or brackish water into drinking water. California has four seawater desalination facilities, with more proposed. Poseidon Water’s facility in Carlsbad, the largest in the Western Hemisphere, provides about 12% of water used in San Diego County. Common concerns include cost, energy required and environmental impacts.

Desalination’s high cost mainly stems from its enormous use of fossil fuels, which also emit greenhouse gases. Pipes taking in water can kill marine organisms as they take in water, as well as the brine that is discharged back into the environment. Researchers in California and around the world are studying how to lower costs and improve desalination technology.

Conserving more water

Even as the state suffers its second-driest year on record, Californians have not taken it very seriously: The governor requested a voluntary 15% cut in water use in July 2021, but since then  residents have reduced home water use by less than 4%.

During the last drought, Californians on average cut residential summer use by 30% between 2013 and 2016. Per capita water use has increased since 2016, but Californians used 14% less water on average in 2020 compared to 2014.

Without a statewide mandate or standardized water waste rules, California faces a patchwork of local water restrictions, with some areas imposing regulations while others have not.

Digging deeper wells

Groundwater makes up 40% of California's water supply, and in dry years that rises to 60%. The overwhelming majority of that groundwater — 79%, on average — goes to agriculture.

During the last drought, thousands of wells, mostly in poor farm communities in the Central Valley, went dry. But thousands of new wells are constructed every year, and existing wells are modified to increase pumping capacity. Depletion of groundwater is a growing concern, particularly in the central part of the state, as growers and others dig deeper and deeper wells.

A 2014 state groundwater law has had little to any effect on reducing depletion so far. Most local water suppliers are still working on their plans for how to regulate pumping. Six draft plans, mostly in the San Joaquin Valley, have been deemed insufficient and sent back by state water officials. The goal of the law is to make groundwater pumping sustainable within 20 years — a long time off when almost-back-to-back droughts are becoming the norm.

Capturing more stormwater

The Santa Monica pier in Santa Monica on March 25, 2020. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Stormwater runoff comes from rain that flows over impervious surfaces, such as streets and rooftops. If captured, it can be used or stored to recharge groundwater aquifers.

Cities historically managed stormwater to prevent floods. But in recent years, state and local policies are shifting to use it as a way to increase water supplies.

For example, Los Angeles County voters in 2018 passed Measure W, a property tax projected to raise hundreds of millions of dollars annually to capture and clean up stormwater. As part of that effort, Santa Monica is capturing 1.6 million gallons of runoff from its pier area, treating it and then using it for irrigation and toilet flushing.

The benefits to Santa Monica are twofold: It keeps polluted runoff off its beaches and provides usable water.

Obstacles to capturing stormwater include inadequate funding, poor water quality and lack of regulations. Projects to capture, transfer and treat stormwater are often expensive and hard to put in place without grants and local bond measures.

How can I learn more about my city’s water?

Look up your water supplier to learn more about contaminants or other information.

Much of the research for this report came from the State Water Board's Safe Drinking Water Plan for California, published in September 2021.

Many examples also came from Urban Water Management Plans. Under a 1983 law, large urban water suppliers must prepare and adopt a plan every five years to be eligible for state funding. For more information on San Jose’s plan, go to::San Jose.


  1. You left out the horror of dogs and cats living together. ?

    So let me get this straight. If this year continues as it has been, we will be faced with a “flood year” in California. But that’s not gonna help the drought? One other question like that I would like to ask is exactly how much has the sea levels have risen in the last 20 years? That number seems to be left out of all these fear mongering articles.

    We can manage everyone of these issues provided that we stop electing progressives who exacerbate the problems in order to gain more and more control. (And, of course, increase taxes so they can hire more government employees.)

  2. This article fails to mention a major cause – CA Governance. Over-Regulation, Eco-Activists and Failure to Plan & Project Manage Properly.

    While the photo of an almost Empty Anderson Reservoir is partly telling – not mentioned is how long the process and how many hurdles major infrastructure projects are hampered by CA’s bad policy and bureaucratic controls.

    “Over a half dozen State agencies are involved with studies and permits to conduct Forest, Open Space, Environment and Water Management in designated areas… the cumbersome Regulations and Lawsuits that come with CEQA and so-called Environmental Activist Groups are drags on most projects.

    Delays over years…”the most significant and comprehensive are the Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs) required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).” which add years before a project can be approved or even start the pre-planning and bid process.

    2007: That state and SCVWD were warned of issues at Anderson as early as 2007.
    But like the majority of CA infrastructure projects, no matter how necessary, Anderson is years behind schedule and way over cost estimates.
    Completion slips from 2018 to 2024 to now 2032.
    Cost increases from $200 million to $400 million to $600 million – UR Guess on final cost??

    2011: Anderson regulated to 68% capacity, plan proposal 2011-2013, design 2013-2016, project construction/completion 2016-2018. Cost estimate $200 million.

    See this ‘amusing’ SCVWD info mailer from 2012 to see how far off plan it is..

    2017: “…the Anderson Dam Seismic Retrofit Project (ADSRP) officially began in 2012, the earliest construction will begin is 2020, at a cost of approximately $400 million (Up from the originally projected $200 million).”
    “Assuming construction begins in 2020, it is estimated it will be completed by 2024.”

    Flooding in San Jose:
    Feb 2017: Anderson “…reservoir behind the dam is not permitted to be more than 68% full.
    This hazard is consistent with Temblor’s Earthquake Hazard Rank of 96.
    However, due to heavy rainfall in the Bay Area in the last several weeks, as of yesterday (Feb 15, 2017) the dam was 99.3% full.
    It should be pointed out that while water will likely flow over the spillway due to upcoming storms, the same Failure which
    Prompted the Evacuation of People near the Oroville Dam is not likely at Anderson Dam,
    according to the Santa Clara Valley Water District.
    Nonetheless, some Flooding is Still Possible.”

    2021: Pre-construction ground breaking of a bigger drain tunnel was started July 2021.

    Construction Projections are 10 yrs completion in 2032…
    while Anderson sits near empty (~3%) in a new drought cycle.
    New Cost Estimate is $600 million.

    “Anderson Reservoir drained to 3% capacity”

    Seismic concerns mount at Anderson Dam south of San Jose (Feb 2017)

  3. It is a good thing all the reservoirs were low because otherwise Norcal would be looking at the worst flooding its had in nearly 40 years this week. Currently a tough sell that we are facing a water supply crisis. You might want to file these articles away until July…

  4. cut H1B Visas

    close the border

    enforce immigration laws

    too many peoples in CA obviously

    oh, you’re not going to do any of that

    so, this is just another academic exercise

  5. Desalination! City of Santa Clara charges customers $6.69 per 100 Cu/Ft. Thats $2915 per acre foot. The City of San Diego is paying $2725 per acre-foot of desalinated water in Fy 2022. Desalinated water is 6.5% cheaper.

  6. progressives? The republicans you mean? because they’re the ones who have let the systems in question crumble while letting the very wealthy and big corporations not pay taxes at all. Letting Nestle take billions of gallons year after year, without permission, and sell it for profit, while the people in the area have no water… that seems like a glaring problem.

  7. i was specifically looking for idiots writing about how rain will not help the drought because they are negative alarmist jerks… and yay i found this

  8. Nothing merits panic or rash decisions, so overwhelmingly the purview of the Left. Just be ready for the state’s future water supply to be there, as population continues to grow in addition to any continued drying from climate change. Calmly, simply do what’s really right.

    By the way, Diablo Canyon could be engaged in desalinization, as the MIT (and Stanford) study explained. Option 4 for its use, devoting all its power to desalinization, makes it a peer of major water works already contemplated as long-needed, the variations of the Delta bypass to send Sacramento River fresh water south. Option 4 is Eauzilla, Water-zilla.

    In fact, if you read the report about Diablo Canyon, you’ll miss San Onofre more for So-Cal.

    Of course, the Left is irrational about nuclear power, too, as well as hypocritical.

    California Aqueduct pumping capacity at Buena Vista 95 13,223,667 m3/d

    Diablo Canyon Option 4 15,379,000 m3/d

    Central Valley Project average annual deliveries to farms 16,800,000 m3/d

    California Aqueduct 32,000,000 m3/d

    Colorado River at Glen Canyon 47,500,000 m3/d

    Central Valley Project annual shortfall 2,000,000 acre-feet/year

    State Water Project annual shortfall 2,500,000 acre-feet/year

    San Joaquin Valley annual overdraft 1,800,000 acre-feet/year

    Delta Conveyance Project – low 100,000 acre-feet/year

    Delta Conveyance Project – high 1,000,000 acre-feet/year

    Diablo Canyon desalinization, Option 4 4,552,538 acre-feet/year


  9. This idiotic article was obviously written before the recent incredible rainstorms. The author clearly had to find a way to continue to “spread the fear” that the Democratic party uses in every aspect of our lives (lie and coerce the public). Thank you B****** and Newson. Shameful!!!

  10. I would be interested to read solutions rather than broad categories of “what can be done…”— difference being the analysis function of this type of report. For example, I recall an issue with water capture a few years ago was complacency regarding dredging (sediment build up reduced capacities by nearly —let me toss a shockingly—false— percent 70%). That report showed dredging only occurring weeks before rainy season.

    Seems like that should be ongoing! Seems like government should hire bu experts and not rely on elected non-experts. The waste water or wasted water capture opportunities reflects wasted monies paid to elected officials. Make elected officials also have a full time other job! That is, their salaries earned as government officials cannot be more than 25% of their “real job” and not exceed 25% of median salary for their local area.

  11. This article undermines credibility of ‘reporting’.

    How about Dummyville where people complain about everything and find ways to make everything negative even when it’s good?

    Recently a reporter from Dummyville wrote an article about how rainfall doesnt help a drought. Seriously. Just because alarmist negativism is popular and gets views.

    Crap like this should never be published. An insult to humanity.

  12. “A large reservoir in the Santa Clara Valley Water District had to be drained due to seismic safety concerns.” If it is the one, I’m thinking about, the feds ordered it closed after giving California over 10 years to address the issue. If the dam holding back the water had failed during an earthquake, hundreds of thousands of lives could have been washed away. It never seemed to be important enough to think about by the local water department or our elected politicians.

  13. @JoeSmith, Yes – Anderson, although the entire CA watershed & reservoir management policies are a disaster – pulled Left and more Left by Eco-activists and “Entitlements over Infrastructure” Liberal Progressives Spending Priorities.

    I detail some of the Anderson Fiasco above (so familiar with most CA Infrastructure Project Management).

    For some reason, maybe the length, my post got caught up in the “awaiting comment moderation” 24 hour cycle.

  14. Lame article. Of course the drought is still a concern, but it’s unsophisticated to suggest the rain hasn’t helped at all.

  15. Show me proof the sea levels are rising… More fake news out of the media as usual.

    The DEMOCRATS have destroyed this state and have Mia managed the water situation.

    Gov Hairdoo ordered a bunch of
    Reservoirs to be empty s few years ago.

  16. JOE SMITH: Yes, it’s the one you were thinking about.

    The major concern of normal people with any future climate change, which will occur over multiple decades and generations of residents, will be that the already-arid West will become more arid as the winter season becomes shorter and drier, and more variable (less reliable), plus warmer (more rain, less snow). This results in more, worse droughts and concerns about water supply, already a concern because of the population growth in the West that’s still to come (and shifting of people from high-cost coastal areas inland, where it is drier, that we already have begun to observe).

    Dams are politically incorrect though: new dams, raising Shasta Dam, maintaining existing dams. There is even a movement for dam removal, including Hetch Hetchy even now.

    Nuclear power is the easiest way to get power to desalinate sea water and pump it uphill and inland, but nuclear power is also politically incorrect. San Onofre joined another plant closed down already, and Diablo Canyon is set to close. Compare what these plants could do versus Carlsbad’s existing facility for desalinization. (If it were much more successful, that, too, would be politically incorrect.)

  17. DAVID KERNER: No, they believe they are sophisticated, and the Climate religious-cultist types are so convinced, they’re fervent about it even when nobody lays waste to their frequent nonsense about it.

  18. DEMSLIE: Sea level rise these days is a particularly striking example of the climate movement being nearly all politics, next to no actual science. (The consequences of warming from changing the Earth’s atmosphere to put more greenhouse gases into it were known by the 1970s and start of the 1980s.)

    If there is a significant rise that affects people, they will respond accordingly. The end.

    There is no “crisis” (acute, short-term situation), no “emergency,” no “apocalypse,” etc, ad nauseum.

    Yes, rainfall brings relief from drought, obviously. A smart critical response would have been that a longer, slower rain would have been nicer than an intense storm with a lot of runoff, instead.

    By the way, anything and everything associated in any way with heat or energy in the atmosphere, such as storms, isn’t necessarily due to global warming at all, of course. It’s more politics, not science. (Even academicians and scientists are infected by liberal politics, have been for ages, and with government interested, it pays them better to be so, too.) Meanwhile, for example, cleaner air, especially in metro areas, can lead to warming; is that acceptable, or is it heresy?

  19. Erica Lee,
    This sounds like the first article you wrote after you left the High School paper. If you’re really afraid of all this stuff move to New York!

  20. The headline is a lie. It falsely implies that despite massive rains, which replenish aquifers, fill reservoirs, and add to the Sierra snowpack, there is not any improvement in the SUPPLY of water. The article does not once mention water supply, and spends 4 pages ranting about the weather and infrastructure, waste treatment, basically nothing that has anything to do with actual gallons of water available for use.

    And btw, nobody should be conserving so our govt can cram a bunch of Third Worlders in here to live with us – who in the hell do they think they are? Demanding WE conserve and then packing the place with a bunch of people nobody asked for or needs. The nerve. That should be a capital offense.

  21. Don’t forget the basics.


    Raising Shasta is still the most straightforward and likely cost-effective action.



    Any interest in raising Shasta Dam or boosting supply elsewhere, such as at Sites, raises interest to the south in building the Delta bypass, formerly a canal proposal, more recently one or two tunnels. The wiser environmentalist critics know what can be done then, if needed or wanted, and if water to the south dries up, of course it will be wanted. (The North Coast rivers await their huge water content being transferred.)



    (“Our June 12 and June 19 cover stories, “Tunnel Vision: Part One Delta in Peril” and “Tunnel Vision: Part Two Rivers in Peril,” misstated the length of Governor Jerry Brown’s proposed water tunnels. They are currently proposed to be 35 miles long — not 39 miles. The length we reported came from an earlier proposal of the water tunnels that has since been changed by the Brown administration.”)

    Expect things to change if the state gets more desperate.

  22. Clearly your a left leaning fear monger. Aquifers are filled holding areas are replenished. The snow pack has a huge affect. Put your 3 masks on and try to lighten up a bit. Doesn’t change anything? Didn’t Al Gore say we would be under water by now? Drought will be over but our water will still go up in price. Amazing Israel has no water shortage but we do. If our governor would have focused on desalination plants instead of paying out checks to people we wouldn’t be talking about this. Missed that part in your article.

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