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How do we build drought resilient drinking water utilities? Learning from Californian Utilities’ Drought Responses

IWRA World Water Congress 2017 - Cancun Mexico
3. Water security in a changing world
Author(s): Amanda Fencl
Julia Ekstrom
Mark Lubell
Louise Bedsworth

Amanda Fencl
UC Davis
alfencl@ucdavis.edu
Julia Ekstrom
UC Davis
jekstrom@ucdavis.edu
Mark Lubell
UC Davis
mnlubell@ucdavis.edu
Louise Bedsworth
UC Davis
louise.bedsworth@opr.ca.gov


Keyword(s): drinking water, drought, vulnerability, water security, climate adaptation, resilience, California
Article:

Abstract
California’s drinking water utilities are vulnerable to drought related water quality and supply impacts. Faced with the on-going six year drought, utilities are managing through an extreme drought. Despite the persistence of droughts in the state’s history, drinking water utilities have few requirements for drought planning, especially for smaller ones. Previous work on Californian utilities reviewed a single adaptation strategy for one utility type (Langridge et al. 2012) and adaptation options for large urban suppliers in one region (Sicke et al. 2012). This study represents one of the first, statewide assessments of drought impacts and responses by the multitude of utility types that supply drinking water in California. This study’s purpose is to identify utility characteristics that enable drought preparedness and build adaptive capacity, and inform drought management policies and strategies at multiple levels of drinking water governance.  
 
A 2015 online survey and regional case studies built from document review and semi-structured interviews, investigate how utilities are differentially vulnerable, prepared for, and adapted to drought and climate impacts. More than 750 utility staff were invited to participate to the online survey; 35% (259) completed a substantive amount of the survey.  Interviews were conducted with more than 60 utility managers in 8 different Climate Impact Regions (CRNA 2012) throughout 2016. 
 
Survey results suggest that current plans do not sufficiently accounted for water quality, and supply-focused plans could prove inadequate in the face of future drought.  Large water utilities are required to submit Urban Water Management (UWMP) Plans to the state, which include a drought and water shortage contingency section. Of the survey respondents who reported having a written plans, nearly 34% of respondents said that their plan was insufficient for managing drought impacts to water quality and 24% felt their plan was insufficient for managing impacts to water supply. Additionally, irrespective of plans, close to 40% of respondents reported that the drought impacted water quality (97/245). Climate projections show that droughts are likely to increase; utilities would benefit from a specific focus on drought-related water quality planning. Interviews highlight that the diversity of drought impacts and responses are driven by a utility’s geographic isolation, regional policy process participation, and reliance on imported versus local water sources.
 
Governor Brown’s May 2016 drought related Executive Order (EO, B-37-16) includes three directives aimed at helping utilities “manage and prepare for dry periods”. The state hopes to build local and regional drought resilience by updating current planning requirements to include longer and more severe droughts, and establishing a process for small water suppliers and rural communities not currently covered by UWMPs.  To be successful in this endeavor, state agencies tasked with implementing the EO benefit from research like this study that captures utilities’ experiences and local knowledge of successful drought responses, barriers, and opportunities where state intervention and support is welcomed.  Additionally, identifying which system characteristics enable a utility to respond and adapt to droughts can be used to encourage drought resilience among other utilities, both within California and the region water management structures.
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