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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Drought and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, 2012–2016: Environmental Review and Lessons


This paper reviews environmental management and the use of science in the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta during California’s 2012–2016 drought. The review is based on available reports and data, and guided by discussions with 27 agency staff, stake-holders, and researchers. Key management actions for the drought are discussed relative to four major drought water management priorities stated by water managers: support public health and safety, control saltwater intrusion, preserve cold water in Shasta Reservoir, and maintain minimum protections for endangered species. Despite some success in streamlining communication through interagency task forces, conflicting management mandates sometimes led to confusion about priorities and actions during the drought (i.e., water delivery, the environment, etc.). This report highlights several lessons and offers suggestions to improve management for future droughts. Recommendations include use of pre-drought warnings, timely drought declarations, improved transparency and useful documentation, better scientific preparation, development of a Delta drought management plan (including preparing for salinity barriers), and improved water accounting. Finally, better environmental outcomes occur when resources are applied to improving habitat and bolstering populations of native species during inter-drought periods, well before stressful conditions occur.


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