Drought and Equity in California

DE_CaliJanuary 9, 2016, Oakland, Calif. – The Pacific Institute and the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water have released the first analysis of the impacts of the California drought on vulnerable communities and put forward recommendations to alleviate those impacts. The groundbreaking study, Drought and Equity in California, focuses on three impacts of the drought: domestic water supply shortages, rising water costs, and declines in the salmon fishery. It finds that low-income families, people of color, communities burdened with environmental pollution, and those dependent on salmon for their livelihood and traditions suffered the most severe impacts.

The report offers a range of solutions to improve our ability to cope with drought and minimize its consequences in the future, from changing how drought water surcharges are levied to providing assistance to fishing communities and establishing a statewide quantitative metric for water system supply reliability.

Disadvantaged communities (those with a medium household income of less than 80 percent of the state median) and cumulatively burdened communities (those that rank in the top quarter of census tracts in the state for environmental burdens and socio-economic vulnerability) were highly affected by water shortages. Drought-impacted public water systems were widespread, with at least one found in 39 of the state’s 58 counties, but were concentrated in the San Joaquin Valley, the North Coast, and the Central Coast. Of the 92 drought-impacted water systems examined, two-thirds served a disadvantaged community, and nearly one-third served a cumulatively-burdened community. Dry household wells were also a major problem for vulnerable communities. In Tulare County, for example, two-thirds of the approximately 1,600 reported dry wells were in a disadvantaged community, and nearly 90% were in a cumulatively burdened community. View a map of household water shortages in Tulare county here.

The report also found drought charges exacerbated affordability concerns for low-income households. Many utilities use a model for drought charges that raises costs for low-income, low-water users that already pay more than they can afford for their basic water needs. The effect of these charges was most extreme for families earning less than $10,000, raising costs from 4.4% to 5.3% of household income. These households have little or no disposable income, and any increase in water costs poses a major challenge.

Says co-author Laura Feinstein: “Water supply shortages during the drought affected some of the most vulnerable populations in the state. Not all Californians have equal access to water, and those with the fewest financial resources faced the greatest problems during the drought.”

The drought has exacerbated long-term declines in salmon populations in the Sacramento and Klamath Rivers. For centuries, Native Americans in California and the Pacific Northwest have relied on salmon not only as a source of sustenance, but also as an integral part of their spiritual and cultural traditions. The dwindling salmon population represents a loss of both physical and spiritual sustenance. For commercial fishermen, the drought has worsened conditions for the salmon fishing fleet, which has declined by 80% since 1982.

Addressing the underlying inequities in how the state’s water resources are managed is all the more urgent because droughts are becoming longer, more frequent, and more severe due to climate change.

The report provides a list of recommendations for mitigating impacts of future droughts on these communities, including:

  • Establishing a statewide quantitative metric for measuring water supply reliability for water systems;
  • Identifying areas where water system consolidation can resolve supply problems;
  • Ensuring drought surcharges are not applied to basic water use, preferably by calculating household water budgets based on household size;
  • Targeting water conservation and efficiency programs to low-income households by offering, for example, point-of-sale coupons, targeted education and outreach, and direct-install programs;
  • Expanding the goals of emergency drought responses beyond preserving endangered species to include protection of commercially-fished salmon species;
  • Providing income assistance and insurance protection for fishing communities during drought emergencies; and
  • Creating mechanisms for meaningful and timely tribal engagement with local, regional, state, and federal agencies.

Download the Executive Summary here.

Download the full report here.


The Pacific Institute is a global water think tank that creates and advances solutions to some of the world’s most pressing water challenges through interdisciplinary research and by partnering with a variety of stakeholders. Founded in 1987 and based in Oakland, California, the Pacific Institute envisions a world in which society, the economy, and the environment have the water they need to thrive now and in the future.