California’s New Melones Lake, photographed in December 2013, shrunk by prolonged drought. Credit: Alejo Kraus-Polk

Human existence in the West, where users compete for limited surface water and diminishing groundwater reserves, has always been challenged by water scarcity. As much of the western United States enters a fourth year of drought, adapting to increasing water scarcity is paramount.

A recent conference brought together water and climate experts to discuss this challenge. Held at the University of California, Davis, the conference aimed to foster discussion among competing stakeholders and identify methods for coping with future water scarcity.

A Focus on California and on Water Markets

During conference discussions, experts in hydrology, climatology, economics, environmental history, geography, and policy attempted to characterize water scarcity, first through time (from the perspectives of history, paleoclimate, and climate prediction) and second across sectors—ecosystems, urban, and agriculture. They also discussed strategies communities have used to cope with water scarcity.

Other speakers promoted water markets as a way to efficiently reallocate water to those who need it most.

Much discussion focused on California. Speakers noted major inadequacies in the legal framework for monitoring and regulating water in the state, especially groundwater. Some, including California Secretary for Natural Resources John Laird, floated the idea of eliminating established water rights. As in Australia, prior appropriation could be replaced with tradable shares of a flexible total allocation. Other speakers—primarily the economists present—promoted water markets as a way to efficiently reallocate water to those who need it most, without disrupting the current rights system.

Although water markets could become a major component of the solution, the system would need to be transparent, meeting attendees agreed. Water basins in the West would need to be divided into trading zones determined with concern for environmental impacts, with a formalized, regulated market to disseminate price information. Critically, participants concluded that an incomplete water market structure coupled with uncertainties about the hydrologic system would impede rational water management.

Scarcity Under a Changing Climate

Climate scientists and hydrologists focused on examining the drought in terms of the past and defining water scarcity under climate change. Although the current drought may not be extraordinary in the context of the West’s paleoclimate record, persistent pressure events, such as atmospheric ridging in the Pacific Northwest that diverts the winter storm track northward, are likely to be more common with global warming. Integrated atmospheric and hydrologic modeling can improve predictions of climate change impacts on water resources.

California Lags Behind in Water Resource Policy

California has less resources information, less transparency, and a weaker watershed consciousness than other western states, emphasized one speaker.

The conference highlighted the fact that California trails other states in water management and policy. Patricia Mulroy, former general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, emphasized that California has less resources information, less transparency, and a weaker watershed consciousness than other western states.

Meeting participants agreed that improved public information about groundwater usage and the formation of a regulated central clearinghouse for water transfers are the first steps toward better management. Attendees also agreed that the West needs to define itself as part of an interstate watershed community, with better monitoring and accountability.

For details more details, see the conference’s website.


The conference was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Ellen Bruno, Lauren Foster, Katherine Hoeberling, Alejo Kraus-Polk, Stephen Maples, Matthew Renquist, Stacy Roberts, and Will Turner IV of the Climate Change, Water, and Society Integrative Graduate Education Research Traineeship (CCWAS IGERT) at the University of California, Davis, organized the conference and contributed to this article, with support from Graham Fogg, Carole Hom, the CCWAS IGERT, and NSF grant DGE 1069333.

—Ellen Bruno, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of California, Davis; email:

Citation: Bruno, E. (2015), Coping with future water woes in the western United States, Eos, 96, doi:10.1029/2015EO032717. Published on 17 July 2015.

Text © 2015. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0
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