Droughts are a recurring feature of California’s climate. Major droughts provide an opportunity to review management responses and derive policy lessons that can better prepare society for the next one. Here we take stock of how California’s cities and suburbs have responded to recent droughts, review the state’s evolving role in urban drought management, and recommend actions to increase urban areas’ drought resilience.
California’s urban water supply system is complex and highly decentralized, with 400-plus utilities serving more than 90 percent of the state’s residents. Following the hard lessons learned from the 1976–77 and 1987–92 droughts, these utilities made substantial investments in drought resilience. This included diversifying supplies with new surface and underground storage, interconnections with neighboring suppliers, recycled wastewater, and water transfer agreements, as well as freeing up supplies by reducing indoor water use. Consequently, urban water suppliers generally believed they were prepared as the state entered a five-year drought in 2012.