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Water Board’s Role in Drought

Managing and protecting California’s water resources is complex—particularly during periods of drought—and requires coordination between federal, state, tribal, and local governments, as well as non-government organizations, stakeholders, and community members. We each have a role to play in sustaining California’s water supply and building the state’s resiliency against the effects of climate change. The California Water Boards’ drought responsibilities are focused in four key areas: conservation and preparation, water protection and management, water quality, and financial and technical assistance.

  View a list of all drought-related actions taken during the current drought (2021- )

  View a list of water rights actions from the previous drought (2014-2017)

Conservation and Preparation

Early action

The State Water Board recognizes the value of acting early and is coordinating with a broad array of state and federal entities (such as the Department of Water Resources, Bureau of Reclamation, Department of Fish and Wildlife, Natural Resources Agency, CalEPA and Department of Food and Agriculture) on responses to current dry conditions based on lessons learned from the 2012–16 drought.

Learning from the last drought

In 2020, the State Water Board conducted a series of stakeholder interviews to better understand the effects of drought response actions taken during the 2012–16 drought. Comments were compiled into the Water Rights Drought Effort Review (WARDER) report. We are leveraging the insights from WARDER as we plan for and respond to current dry conditions.

Conservation as a way of life

To improve water conservation and drought planning, the State Water Board and Department of Water Resources are setting water use efficiency standards for water suppliers as directed by the “conservation as a way of life” laws.

Water Protection and Management

Watershed-level monitoring

The State Water Board monitors watersheds (such as the Russian River and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta) by collecting and analyzing water-use data submitted by water diverters. Accurate and timely data are critical components of the tools we use to manage California's water and help minimize potential drought impacts to businesses, homes, farms, and the environment.

Administration of water rights

The water rights system is one of the State Water Board’s most effective tools for managing diversions from our watersheds during times of limited water supply. Diverting surface water in California requires a water right, which specifies when, where and how much water can be taken, as well as the purpose and place of use for the diverted water.

In times of drought, water right holders in critically dry watersheds are notified that their water allocation may soon become unavailable, and may eventually be required to stop diverting entirely. These notifications are distributed in order of water right priority, where the most junior right holder is the first required to discontinue use. More senior water right holders may also be required to stop diverting water when dry conditions persist.

The State Water Board's Division of Water Rights informs water users when water supplies are insufficient for all demands, in the following order:

  1. Warning letters notify water users of ongoing dry conditions and urge them to plan for potential shortages and adopt conservation strategies.
  2. Notices of water unavailability inform users that water is estimated to be unavailable for their priority of right or will be unavailable in the near future.
  3. Curtailment orders require water users to stop diversions due to limited supplies unless they have an approved exception, such as needing the water allocation to meet minimum standards for human health and safety.

If there is not enough water for all water right holders, it is important for curtailments to remain in place to prevent diverters from taking water outside of their priority of right, resulting in an illegal diversion. The State Water Board closely monitors water supply and demand information to determine whether and when updates to curtailments are necessary or appropriate.

Temporary change petitions

During drought, the State Water Board can issue Temporary Urgency Change Petitions (TUCPs) that allow for short-term changes to a water permit or license. They are intended to provide relief to water right holders from drought conditions, and can include changing the point of diversion or the purpose/place of water use. Once approved, the change orders last up to 180 days and are renewable.

When making decisions on TUCPs, we must balance our mission to preserve and protect California water resources with the real-time threat to water supply created by drought. The State Water Board considers comments and objections from the public before approving TUCPs.

  View a list of TUCPs.

Water Quality

Drinking water needs assessment

In 2021, as part of its Safe and Affordable for Equity and Resilience (SAFER) Program, the State Water Board completed its first annual drinking water needs assessment to identify water systems and domestic wells that are failing or at risk of failing to meet the state’s drinking water standards. By working toward solutions with these systems, we are improving their drought resiliency.

Harmful algal blooms (HABs)

The risk of harmful algal blooms (HABs) forming increases during drought. HABs occur when algae grow out of control and produce toxic or harmful effects on people, fish, shellfish, marine mammals and birds. The human illnesses caused by HABs, though rare, can be debilitating or even fatal. The Water Boards monitor water sources for HABs and notify the public of associated health risks.

Recycled water

Recycled water is part of California’s integrated water management approach, which includes conservation, stormwater, groundwater recharge, and other strategies to achieve a sustainable water supply. Recycled water is a critical supply during times of drought and the Water Boards are implementing our recycled water policy, streamlining permitting, and funding research and projects to support the state’s recycled water goals.


Traditionally, stormwater is managed to mitigate flooding and protect water quality, but storm water can also increase local water supplies and recharge groundwater when properly managed. The Water Boards are actively involved in initiatives to improve the management of storm water as a resource. Storm water capture has potential as a local water supply, particularly in water-stressed areas, and offers a significant opportunity to enhance community resilience.

Financial and Technical Assistance

The State Water Board offers low-interest loans and grants for communities that may be disproportionately impacted by drought. More information is available regarding drought-related emergency funding and drought assistance for households and water systems.  We are also partnering with counties to help fund regional projects that address drought-related impacts.

We also administer funding for recycled water projects (as mentioned above), which contribute to creating sustainable, drought resilient water supplies.

Through our agreements with technical assistance providers, water systems can receive technical assistance funding for building drought resilience in a number of areas, including preparedness, conservation, and emergency response planning.