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Maladaptation to drought: a case report from California, USA


The interactions between natural water availability and societal water demand and management are complex. In response to gaps in empirical research of the adaptive capacity of social and environmental systems to climate stresses, we provide an assessment of responses to water scarcity during a multi-year drought in California. In particular, we use Barnett and O’Neill’s (Global Environ Change 20:211–213, 2010) criteria for maladaptation to examine responses in the agricultural and energy sectors to a multi-year (2007–2009) California drought. We conclude that despite evidence in both sectors of resiliency to the impacts of the drought, some of the coping strategies adopted increased the vulnerability of other systems. These other systems include California’s aquatic ecosystems and social groups that rely on those ecosystems for their health or employment; future generations whose resources were drawn down in the near-term, where otherwise those resources would have been available at a later time; and current and future generations who were, or will be, exposed to the effects of increased greenhouse gas emissions. This case study demonstrates that California’s current strategies for dealing with long or severe droughts are less successful than previously thought when short- and long-term impacts are evaluated together. This finding is particularly relevant given projections of more frequent and severe water shortages in the future due to climate change. This study recommends a shift from crisis-driven responses to the development and enactment of long-term mitigation measures that are anticipatory and focus on comprehensive risk reduction.

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We would like to thank all those who have offered ideas, data, information, and/or comments on the report, including Lucy Allen, Damian Bickett, Jeff Cesca, Mike Colvin, Heather Cooley, Sean Dayyani, Russ Freeman, Michael Hanemann, Matthew Heberger, Phuong Lao, Jeanine Jones, Kelly Krug, Igor Laćan, Kristin Macey, Guy Masier, Paul Mendoza, Tracy Pettit-Polhemus, Spreck Rosekrans, Tina Swanson, Dave Runsten, and the many county agricultural commissioners and their staff. This research was supported by the Panta Rhea Foundation, the Flora Family Foundation, and the Pisces Foundation.

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Correspondence to Juliet Christian-Smith.

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Handled by Soontak Lee, Yeungnam University, Korea.

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Christian-Smith, J., Levy, M.C. & Gleick, P.H. Maladaptation to drought: a case report from California, USA. Sustain Sci 10, 491–501 (2015).

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  • Drought Impact
  • Crop Insurance
  • Water District
  • California Energy Commission
  • Fresno County