For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

Physicist Richard Feynman said that, and as President Barack Obama detailed his plans for California’s drought aid to an audience in Fresno, Calif., on Feb. 14, some California farmers seemed to agree with the sentiment. While the aid will help, some farmers have expressed that it doesn’t address the long-term drought issues that have faced California for hundreds of years.

The president announced $183 million in aid, with $100 million going to livestock disaster aid, $60 going to food banks, and $13 million going to conservation and other efforts to help communities struggling with the draught. The aid follows a declaration of drought emergency earlier this month by Gov. Jerry Brown.

In recent weeks, state public health officials identified 17 communities that were at a particularly high risk of running out of water. The communities are located in Fresno County, Madera County, Mariposa County, Kern County, Amador County, Mendocino County, Nevada County, Placer County, Santa Cruz County, and Sonoma County. The federal relief funds will mostly be put toward efforts to mitigate urgent problems, but California hasn’t seen its last dry season, and a long-term strategy is not evident.

In fact, there’s a drought every year in California – it’s called summer, said David Todd, land and water use program manager for the California Department of Water Resources. This year has been particularly dry, eclipsing records set in 1976 and 1977, and reminding long-time residents of the two particularly long droughts of the late 1920s and early 1930s and the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“Most people would call those pretty severe droughts,” Todd said, “but if you go back to the geologic record and look at tree ring studies … they’ve identified drought periods that have lasted for more than 200 years or so in California. The question is: is that normal California climate? This drought could be within the normal range of climate in California. But we won’t know until afterward.”

Smart water meters are being used throughout some communities in California, which can help residents track their home’s water usage and identify leaks, but precise adoption rates are unknown, at least to him, Todd said. Three other officials in various agencies overseeing water use reported similarly that the extent of smart water meter adoption in the state is unknown.

And smart water meters do help, Todd said. But primarily, water districts have been focused on conserving water in the short term rather than focusing on long-term technologies that could help the state’s water issues. Some communities have instituted water rations, such as St. Helena, which limits each resident to 65 gallons of water per person, per day. That is working, Todd said. “They’ve already dropped their water use by 30 percent, so customers are responding.”

Many more communities have requested residents voluntarily reduce their water consumption by 20 percent. Various other rules have been instituted in communities around the state, such as limits on which days residents are allowed to water grass or wash vehicles, limits on out-of-district water use like water trucks, and prohibitions on fire departments using water after a fire has been contained or using water for training.

“We’re doing all sorts of things,” Todd said. “And there’s all sorts of technology that’s being applied – ultra low-flush toilets, and faucets and fixtures and appliances, as well as stuff that may be new to our country but have been around for thousands of years, like gray water, run-off catchment basins and rain barrels. One of the people I work with bought and installed rain barrels this weekend. It’s a pretty major investment, really.”

Techniques and technology used to survey water usage have improved slightly, pushing the ability of water districts to look forward five or six days, rather than just two or three days. But for the most part the technology for surveying is much the same. The Department of Water Resources still uses manual water surveys, where people measure samples with buckets.

The Mariposa Public Utility District is among the communities that has asked its residents for a voluntary 20 percent reduction in water usage. If things keep progressing as they have been, the next stage will be rations, said Mark Rowney, general manager for the district.

Having low water in California is an interesting thing, Rowney said, because some of the communities that were listed as being at risk are low on water, but have been low for the past 10 years or so. In some places, drought is normal.

“The spreadsheets I showed my board two weeks ago, which have changed since then, had us so if we didn’t ration water and we were not able to pump water from the Merced River, we would have been out of water by September,” he explained. “But that’s changed because we’re pumping out of the river right now, so we’re going to take a monthly look at it.”

Rowney sounded calm as he explained how the water district's 440 acre reservoir, which is now at 30 percent capacity, could soon drop below the curtailment point, which is when water rations would begin. “We’re extremely worried,” he said. “The irrigators are just awful. You’re going to pay a lot of money for a tomato next year.”

Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog.