California Pushed to Revamp Water Plans for Increasingly Wild Weather

Nov 5, 2019 at 4:00pm

Courthouse News Service, Nick Cahill

Yo-yoing between heat waves, torrential rainfall and raging wildfires that burn through Thanksgiving, the explosive nature of California’s weather has been on full display over the last several years. The state’s worst drought, one of its wettest winters and both the largest and most destructive wildfires all occurred this decade.

Unpredictability has long been a staple of the Golden State’s climate, but scientists warn that warming temperatures will likely lead to shorter, more intense rainy stretches – putting added strain on the state’s overworked water infrastructure.

Casting climate change as a direct threat to California’s water security, a panel of experts on Tuesday said the state must plan for the “new normal” by modernizing water infrastructure before the next great disaster.

“The volatility just makes it harder to use our multipurpose reservoirs,” said Ellen Hanak, director of the Public Policy Institute of California Water Policy Center. “When you’ve got higher, spikier runoff, that means you have higher flood risk at the same time you want to be saving water for drought.”

As is the case across the country, California’s major dams and reservoirs were built decades ago and designed to supply fewer people and protect against a smaller flood risk.

Facing runoff from a series of major winter storms, California narrowly escaped an unimaginable disaster in February 2017 when the spillway at the nation’s tallest dam disintegrated and sent nearly 200,000 Northern Californians scrambling. A break in the weather helped state officials eventually gain control of the situation, but it was a wakeup call and repairs ultimately cost taxpayers more than $1 billion.

The near catastrophe at Oroville Dam would have rivaled any disaster in state history, leaving millions homeless and without water from Northern California to Los Angeles.

Though the dam is once again in working condition, experts who participated in the PPIC’s water forum Tuesday said other repairs are needed to prepare California for the next big storm. The nonpartisan think tank suggests not just fixing old dams and sinking canals, but diversifying the water grid by creating ways to capture runoff during floods and use it to recharge aquifers.

The PPIC’s 20-page report explores how five effects of climate change – warming temperatures, shrinking snowpack, shorter and more intense rainy seasons, volatile precipitation and rising seas – will impact the state’s ability to get water to a growing population of 40 million.

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