Last weekend, 15 million people in California and Nevada — many of them in the Central Valley, including Kern County — were under the threat of flooding. Evacuations were announced, and federal and state emergencies declared, as California continued to be pummeled by torrential rains and snowfall.
And water-logged Californians braced for yet another “atmospheric river” to hit the state midweek. Atmospheric rivers are bands of moisture that can stretch for thousands of miles and act like fire hoses as they dump water from saturated air. These storms have been accompanied by heavy mountain snowfall that will eventually melt and add to floodwaters.
Words like epic and record-breaking are used to describe the extreme, months-long weather events. That leads to the logical question: Is California still in a drought?
That depends on how you define “drought.” In California, it’s more complex than just the absence of rain — which has been the situation since 2019. It is the balance between water supplies and water use.
The sunny skies and warm temperatures that are televised each year during the New Year’s Rose Parade as it marches down Pasadena’s Colorado Boulevard belie the reality that California is a state plagued by extreme weather and climate conditions.
There are years of extreme drought that stretch the state’s ability to sustain its residents and industries, particularly its vital agricultural industry, and periods of life-threatening flooding. Climate change has increased the number of devastating wildfires. And the state’s geology accounts for unexpected disasters.
It is critical for Californians and their public officials to anticipate the extremes, and plan and invest in the responses.
Mother Nature can be cruel. Today’s floods can be followed by tomorrow’s droughts.
As the storms began to lash California in December, a lot of the rainwater flowed out to sea. By design, it was not captured. By foot-dragging it was not stopped.
The howls were loud and finger-pointing quick, as water flowed down California rivers, through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and out into the ocean in the early days of the downpour.
Much of that “uncaptured runoff” was the result of a delta management protocol called “first flush.” Designed to protect endangered delta water species, “first flush” requires two weeks of reduced pumping at the onset of the first big winter storm to give fish enough time to move away from the powerful delta pumps.
The howling about the uncaptured runoff fueled the long-standing political debate over the lack of investment in California’s water storage capacity. Bakersfield legislators — Republican Assemblyman Vince Fong and Democratic state Sen. Melissa Hurtado and Assemblywoman Jasmeet Bains — joined the chorus of critics.
They noted voters in 2014 overwhelmingly passed Proposition 1, a $7.5 billion bond act to fund construction and expansion of California water storage facilities. In the years since, spending the money has been bogged down by bureaucratic red tape.
Even Gov. Gavin Newson admits progress on the storage projects has been too slow. Last fall, Newsom created “strike teams” to help cut through the red tape.
While Republicans and farmers blame delays on incompetent, foot-dragging Democratic administrations and bureaucrats, there have been some small projects completed. In addition, permitting is moving ahead on the Sites dam in Colusa County, with construction expected to begin in 2025. Other projects, including two dam expansions and groundwater storage projects, have been approved. About $89 million has been allocated for Kern County.
And as the storms keep slamming California, runoff water is being released into areas where it can be spread and used to replenish drought-depleted underground aquifers and water banks.
These epic and record-setting storms have not washed away the reoccurring water shortage that is California’s reality. But they have focused attention on what must be done.
• Speed investment of state, federal and private money to add water storage capacity.
• Increase groundwater storage capacity.
• Stop squabbling and improve the delta’s water transmission and habitat protection.
• Encourage Californians to continue conserving water and planning for the inevitable years of both drought and flooding.