California's ongoing extreme drought must be a lesson for managing water in a warmer, more densely populated world, says a team of NOAA and University of California climatologists and hydrologists.
In the Journal Nature, the research team calls for a greater recognition of the role humans play in drought and in driving higher demands on water, such as urbanization, greenhouse gas emissions, food and energy production, and water policies and management practices.
Better understanding these human stresses will help federal, state and local decision makers, and industries evaluate new and existing policies to safeguard scarce water resources and increase efficiencies in usage, they say.
"In a world that is becoming warmer where water is becoming more scarce owing to growing and competing demands, communities, businesses and nations must implement policies and invest in new technologies that make every drop count," said Dr. Martin Hoerling, with NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo.
"California's challenge is to find a balance of water for the state and for the environment; unless more efficient approaches are adopted, striking a balance that maintains existing services will be a difficult task," Hoerling continued.
Since 2011, California has been experiencing its worst drought in more than a century. Temperatures are breaking record highs and the region is down a year's worth of rainfall. Forests, fish and wildlife as well as the regional economy especially rural communities are struggling; drought in 2015 alone is expected to cost the state an excess of $3 billion.
Severe and long-lasting droughts have occurred in reconstructions of the region's past climate, researchers said, so it is not clear whether California's current drought is a temporary weather condition or is the emergence of a "new normal."
Researchers say states like California should develop proactive water management plans for droughts, instead of responding to crises.
"Demand management, conservation, public outreach, technological innovation for water conservation and more-flexible market-based solutions and infrastructure adaptation are fundamental to responding to increased demands and climate-change stress in the future," the paper suggested.