October 19, 2017
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Why California Can’t Go Back to ‘Normal’ After Drought

Lester Snow, a longtime water leader in California, cautions that there will be no “back to normal” for the state. Instead, we’ll be wrestling with challenging weather extremes for a long time to come.

By Matt Weiser


CALIFORNIA’S FIVE-YEAR DROUGHT was officially declared to be over in April. By many measures, it was the worst drought in the state’s recorded history. And it was brought to an end by one of the wettest single winters ever.

As a result, most water agencies across the state have dropped their emergency water conservation rules. And, presumably, life will get back to normal in that interface between people and water.

But is the drought really over? And even if it is, should we allow life to return to “normal”?

To begin poking at these important questions, Water Deeply recently spoke with Lester Snow, one of California’s most experienced water managers. Snow was director of the state Department of Water Resources under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for six years, then became director of the state Natural Resources Agency. Prior to that, he was general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority and a regional director at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

More recently, Snow helped launch the California Water Foundation (now simply the Water Foundation) and served as its first executive director for five years, recently stepping down to become a senior policy adviser.

Water Deeply: What’s on your mind now that the drought has been declared over?

We had a year where the rainfall statistics technically mean we’re not having a drought. In fact, we’re having a very wet year. But, what’s happening in 2017 compared to the five years that preceded it is just one more illustration of dramatic changes in our precipitation patterns resulting from climate change. As climate scientists have been telling us for almost two decades, what we’re facing is an increase in the extremes. And that’s what we just experienced.

The drought being over tends to lead people to think, wow, we’re back to normal. And that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Water Deeply: What did you learn from this drought?

Snow: I think what we learned from the five years of well below normal precipitation – and 2015 being a dramatically low year – is first how easily or quickly the public can respond when they’re told there’s a crisis and they need to save water. When water conservation legislation was done in 2009 – the 20 percent by 2020 requirement – there was kind of this reaction that, wow, that’s a lot to ask of people. But what we observed is people very handily reduced their water use by 25 percent – in a matter of weeks, in some cases. Very noteworthy.

One of the lessons learned was how valuable having reclaimed water is. It’s not drought-proof, but it’s pretty close to being drought-proof. If you’ve developed a reclaimed water system, either for potable use or for golf courses and parks, it means you have a green park in the middle of a drought, and everybody gives up their lawn and goes to the wonderful green park. Very valuable, and hopefully there’s a lot more interest in developing our wastewater supply. We’re still dumping 1.5 million acre-feet of wastewater into the ocean every year. The drought helped focus attention on that.

Water Deeply: In hindsight, do you think the 20 percent by 2020 requirement was not ambitious enough?

Snow: I think it wasn’t ambitious enough. Even at the time, there were a number of folks who thought it could go a bit further. But even with that, it was an important milestone of trying to codify conservation and efficiency.

Now the state’s taken a very different approach that will kind of supersede those more uniform cuts across the board. It’s much more a budget-based approach that is more tailored, depending on where you’re living. Outdoor water use is based on the climate zone that you’re in. So it isn’t the same kind of uniform approach, but I think a lot of the conservation people think this is just a superior way to go about it, and probably a more equitable way in the long run.

Water Deeply: Overall, do you think we handled the drought well as a state?

On January 11, 2017, a rainbow is seen over a flooded landscape in Hollister, Calif. The state has emerged from a punishing drought that covered the whole state just a year ago, a stunning transformation caused by an unrelenting series of storms that filled lakes, overflowed rivers and buried mountains in snow. Yet it’s no time to get complacent, says Lester Snow. (Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated Press)

Snow: Actually, I do. I think the governor did a pretty good job on this one. Especially when you look at what was done in the context of the Water Action Plan he put out earlier, which was an all-of-the-above approach.

In the first two years of the drought, there wasn’t that much enthusiasm. The response from a lot of thought leaders and politicians – and even the public – was, we’ll work our way through this.

And then a different reality set in. By the time we were in midsummer of 2014, there was a recognition that something really different was going on, and it got a lot of attention. Then, by the time you got into 2015, it was like the wheels were coming off.

There really was something different going on, and we probably have more people in California that understand and believe in climate change than anywhere else in the country. I think there are more and more people that are drawing a conclusion that we’re seeing an increase in extremes – higher flood risk and deeper, more severe droughts.

Water Deeply: What could we have done better?

Snow: I still think we need to identify a consistent funding stream to invest in what the Public Policy Institute of California calls the orphan projects, or orphan programs, that kind of fall between the cracks in terms of investment. We have to invest to be prepared.

An example would be stormwater. For decades, stormwater has been this liability that causes coastal pollution. Now there’s a much greater sense that it’s a water supply. Traditionally, there just hasn’t been a solid revenue stream for that. Is it wastewater or street runoff, or is it a water supply? And who pays for that investment?

The other thing that’s much more pronounced, both as a policy and revenue issue, is safe drinking water for disadvantaged communities. We got a lot of attention in the national press about low-income communities where wells went dry. In some of those places, they’re still trucking in water. What got less attention was that before their wells went dry, it was contaminated water. The state is still struggling with how do we upgrade those systems or connect them with somebody else, and how do we pay for it. So whether during the drought or with the drought as a memory, I think that’s still something we need to pay attention to and capitalize on.

Another thing we should have in place is a clear environmental water supply for when you have drought conditions. Maybe it’s a groundwater bank account. Whatever it is, the pressure usually comes on during a bad drought. It comes down to “Let’s throttle back on environmental restrictions a little bit.” We also don’t necessarily have a clear strategy for getting water to our wildlife refuges. I think people did a decent job, but I think we need to pay more attention to that.

The high runoff this year is helping to illustrate we probably have some areas on the valley floor where we need new levees, but they need to be set way back so that you have more floodplain habitat. We’ve got to bring resilience to the ecosystem, and part of that is simply that we need more riparian and wetlands habitat, and we have to invest in that.

Water Deeply: In the context of this drought, what’s the future of water storage in California?

Snow: We need to have more active groundwater recharge. That can come in a lot of different fashions. The recharge basins they have down in Kern County – where they’ve been recharging for probably a couple of decades – we probably need to see more of that. The other is something that Sustainable Conservation has been working on with some valley farmers. They’re taking some of these winter flows and running them out onto dormant orchards or fallow fields to simply recharge groundwater with existing infrastructure. And they’ve gotten some good results. We need to max that kind of effort for more storage.

For the other part, the surface water part, we just need more flexibility to integrate existing storage. There aren’t any more big surface storage reservoirs out there. There are no more Shastas or Orovilles. Now it’s about multipurpose, multibenefit high-flexibility type of things.

The one new project that’s proposed that provides some unique benefits and flexibility is Sites Reservoir. It’s an off-stream reservoir. It probably can allow you to operate both Shasta and Oroville a little differently, and be able to provide fisheries, flood and water supply benefits. It’s all about the flexibility. But even that doesn’t do much unless you’re also enhancing groundwater storage so you have these long-term water supplies.


Appeared at newsdeeply.com