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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Patterns of Water Use in California


Recent patterns of water use and supply in California are presented based on a new data set compiled from the California Department of Water Resources water balance data for 2002 through 2016. The water use and supply include surface water and groundwater, although groundwater reporting has been incomplete. These data are used to support the Water Plan released every 3 to 5 years and are the most comprehensive and finest spatial- and temporal-scale data set for California water resources. First, using the Bay–Delta watershed as a case example, we show that recent fluctuations in water use are highly correlated with variations in precipitation. Developed water supplies and use show these fluctuations, but they are modified by reservoir inflows and releases, groundwater supplies, and Delta outflows. Second, although the annually precipitated water supply in the Bay–Delta varies by about 30%, the developed water supply damps this considerably. The water management system maintained nearly constant agricultural water use even in periods of intense drought, with year-to-year variation of about 7%. Variability in urban water use is higher (∼20%), largely from conservation during periods of drought. Finally, this information can help improve water resource management because it connects regional-scale data to meaningful policy decision-making at county and sub-county levels. At a time when water policy and management are being re-evaluated across the American West in the light of changing climate, decision-making informed by science and data is urgently needed. The statewide water balance data provide the means to establish a consistent, quantitative framework for water resource analysis throughout the state.

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