For a simple small fish, the delta smelt (Hypomyssus transpacificus) has garnered a lot of attention. In the vast waterways of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which channels precious water throughout northern California, smelt has acted as an environmental sentinel.

When its numbers dwindled, water managers filled the delta with fresh water, sparking outrage from farmers, who wanted to nourish their crops instead.

Yet drought can eventually lead to smelting. As California seeks to enter its fifth year of drought, officials are faced with difficult choices to manage water in the long run.

So far, thanks to the resilience built into the water system over the years, Californians are facing notable shortages. Cities have opted to control their love of lush lawns, and farmers have shifted to efficient irrigation and other water-saving measures.

But how long can the Golden State glow last? Two new reports (see go.nature.com/jpze97 and go.nature.com/okxrdo) highlight the likely future if the drought continues. And the outlook isn’t always that promising. Water managers simply cannot expect a rainy winter, perhaps spurred by El Ni o.

Farmers will still pump groundwater for California’s US$46 billion agricultural industry, so water levels will continue to fall.

At greater risk are California’s iconic ecosystems, ranging from redwood trees to rivers containing salmon and trout.

Wildlife managers make arrangements to keep wetlands moist, most important for visiting birds, and forestry managers put out wildfires as soon as they start. But such a piecemeal approach must be turned into a long-term strategy, as farmers and urban planners have already done for their thirsty constituents.

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