California’s cycles of drought and flood, and the persistent idea that there is some such thing as “normal” conditions, shape the way water is managed in fundamental ways. California’s most recent drought began in the winter of 2011–12. Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency in January 2014, at the onset of a third dry year, calling on Californians to (voluntarily) conserve water. Early response to the governor’s drought proclamation was strikingly ambivalent, and in some cities water use actually went up. In April 2015, the governor announced a first-ever mandate requiring urban areas to cut water use by twenty-five percent. At the local level, many cities and water districts pushed back, stating that the targets were too high or that they needed credit for earlier conservation measures. Yet overall, statewide targets were met by that summer.
In Australia, the so-called “Millennium Drought” ending in 2012 significantly changed the way Australia manages its water resources. It inspired policy changes at the national and local levels as well as wide public participation in conservation strategies. As California’s drought wanes with record winter rains, will conservation successes fade into memory as well? This paper compares drought response in California and Queensland, Australia, at various scales, and evaluates opportunities for leveraging these potential crises to reshape water policy.