California Drought

California needs better water-use data, clearer priorities and better drought-management planning if it’s going to weather future droughts better than it’s doing now, a new report finds.

As bad as this drought is, it won’t be California’s last, and preparing for the next one could save a lot of heartache and money, the Public Policy Institute of California’s new report says.

The study comes as the State Water Resources Control Board on Tuesday will consider new conservation rules with the state entering its fourth year of drought and residents falling far short of Gov. Jerry Brown’s conservation targets. Critics are already suggesting some of the proposed requirements, such as new limits on lawn watering after rain, don’t go far enough. The new rules also may restrict restaurants from serving tap water unless customers ask and hotels posting signs telling guests they can elect not to have sheets and towels washed every day.

All of that is like closing the barn door after the horse has bolted, some experts say. The new PPIC report calls for more sweeping policy changes, such as stricter oversight of groundwater and charging wasteful users higher water rates.

“If we’d already taken some of these actions, there would be more water in our reservoirs and our underground aquifers today,” said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, an Oakland water research group. “Droughts aren’t going away. We’re going to see more and more extreme weather.”

It’s a message that’s resonating in Sacramento.

“It’s time to stop thinking about the drought as an aberration, and time to start using it as a basic planning model,” said state Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, a leader on Delta water issues. “Drought is the new normal.”

Based on lessons learned from Australia’s epic Millennium Drought — which parched the land down under from 1995 to 2012 — California should invest in tracking its water with accurate measurements of flow, quality, storage and use, the PPIC report says. The state can’t manage its water fairly, transparently and flexibly without a clear picture of what it has.

“Our water accounting system is primitive considering that we’re the technological leader of the world. There’s significant disconnect here,” Jeffrey Mount, a PPIC senior fellow and one of the report’s authors, said Monday.

Cities and farms must better manage their demand and develop reliable supplies, the report found. That means reducing urban irrigation — by installing more efficient watering systems and replacing lawns with less-thirsty plants — and promoting conservation with higher per-gallon water rates for heavy users.