Record Snowpack Brings Mixed Blessings to California

This year’s Sierra Nevada snowpack, one of the largest on record, has brought relief to California, which is still reeling from a five-year drought followed by record flooding. The snowpack is twice its average size, with some areas as deep as 80 feet, according to NASA. But with some rivers and dams still at higher than average levels, the fear is that warm temperatures or heavy rainfall will cause the snows to melt faster and bring more flooding.

Colorado and other mountain states, which also experienced heavy snowfall this winter are also concerned with runoff issues. Canada has faced severe runoff problems, after a heat wave earlier this spring resulted in major flooding in Quebec and British Columbia, the Wall Street Journal reported.

“The real wild card is if we get hit with a big rain event,” Frank Gehrke, chief snow surveyor for the California Department of Water Resources, told the Wall Street Journal as he monitored a rushing stream in late May. “That could throw the whole system into tilt.”

The Los Angeles Times reported last month that the rapid snowmelt has kept public agencies busy managing water levels across the state’s network of reservoirs. Water district managers must conduct daily conference calls to coordinate releases of water in order to monitor the amounts released into California’s rivers, creeks, bypasses and canals. This coordination is critical, as reservoir releases impact water levels downstream for days. Since one reservoir’s release may meet with another, managers must determine how much water the rivers and levees can support before overflowing.

A number of dams levees and weirs in the state are at least 60 years old, and in some areas more than 100 years old, according to a state Legislative Analyst’s Office report. It noted that flood-management responsibilities in California are spread across more than 1,300 agencies managing an infrastructure of more than 20,000 miles of levees and channels and more than 1,500 dams and reservoirs.

One reservoir in Los Angeles, the Silver Lake Reservoir, is benefiting from the snowpack and ample water supply. No longer used to store drinking water, the reservoir was drained in 2015. It sat empty and was seen as an eyesore, until recently when it was able to be refilled ahead of schedule.

According to the L.A. Times, the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council expressed its pleasure that the reservoir was refilled. The council’s co-chair, Anne-Marie Johnson, a second-generation Silver Lake resident, said she is “more than excited” that the landmark will no longer be an eyesore. “I am grateful to Mother Nature for providing us an abundance of snow. I don’t take that for granted,” she said.

California’s New Localized Water Controls a Step Forward

With higher levels of rain and snowfall over the winter, California’s water situation has eased in some areas, prompting the state to initiate new water conservation rules, adopted on May 18 and in effect June 1 through January 2017. The regulations give control over water usage to local communities, which means more restrictions in some areas than in others. In Northern California, winter precipitation has filled some reservoirs, while drought conditions persist in Southern California.

The previous rule—enacted in April 2015 by Gov. Jerry Brown, who issued an Executive Order mandating a 25% reduction of urban water usage from 2013 levels over a nine-month period—saw a savings of about 424 billion gallons. That followed a failed year-long effort to achieve a voluntary 20% reduction in water usage, with statewide conservation results averaging between just 7% and 12%.

The State Water Resources Control Board explained that the new approach replaces the percentage reduction-based water conservation standard with a localized approach. The emergency regulation requires that urban water suppliers ensure that at least a three year supply of water would be available to their customers in case of drought conditions. Suppliers that would face shortages under three additional dry years are now required to meet a conservation standard equal to the amount of a shortage. A water agency that projects it would have a 10% supply shortfall, for example, would have a mandatory conservation standard of 10%. The regulation also makes previously passed water-wasting rules permanent, including no hosing of sidewalks, washing cars without a hose nozzle, or watering lawns within 48 hours of measurable rainfall.

“El Nino didn’t save us, but this winter gave us some relief,” Water Board Chair Felicia Marcus said in a statement. “It’s a reprieve though, not a hall pass, for much if not all of California. We need to keep conserving, and work on more efficient practices, like keeping lawns on a water diet or transitioning away from them. We don’t want to cry wolf, but we can’t put our heads in the sand either.”

Will Sarni, director and practice leader of water strategy at Deloitte, agrees with the direction the state is taking on conservation.

While it may appear that restrictions are being eased, which could send the message that things are going back to business as usual, “It’s not business as usual, but local entities are being given more control,” Sarni said. “My view is that water is ultimately a local issue, so providing greater flexibility and decision-making at the local level that aligns with an overall strategy within the state, or nation, makes sense.”

The model of local management actions that roll up to a regional entity have successfully been adopted in other parts of the country, he said, explaining that states do work together. One example is the Delaware River Basin Commission, which is an entity that has a say in how water is managed in the Delaware River. Other examples include the Great Lakes Commission and the Colorado River Compact. “So cooperating on water is actually more common than not,” Sarni said.


Drought 2

California Water Survey Highlights Lax Monitoring

The worsening drought in California has called attention to a hodge-podge monitoring system that does not accurately measure water usage across the state.

A survey taken in May found that water usage was up drastically in some areas, such as Santa Ana. A closer look at usage, however, shows that the city’s consumption was up 10% rather than 60%, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Also, water agencies self-reported their data, causing discrepancies. While a 5% decrease in usage was reported statewide, water use had actually increased 1%. One reason was that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power initially left the data for May blank, when L.A. actually had a 9% increase.

The state is planning its first mandatory survey later this year. But officials doubt the accuracy, as many water customers in the Central Valley farming region as well as parts of Fresno and Sacramento don’t have water meters.

California recently approved mandatory restrictions and fines of up to $500 a day for wasting water, but much of the state still relies on voluntary conservation.

“It’s not going to be a huge change from what we already have,” Kevin Pearson, media relations officer of the Eastern Municipal Water District told the Los Angeles Times earlier this month.  The eastern district has voluntary measures in place for the 768,000 people in western Riverside County.

Los Angeles has limited outdoor watering to three days a week since 2009, but is increasing enforcement of its conservation ordinance. It also recently raised its cash-for-grass rebate to $3 a square foot to encourage native plantings in place of water-dependent lawns.

Calif. Considers Tough Fines for Wasting Water

Despite pleas to conserve water by Gov. Jerry Brown, Californians have paid little attention, prompting the state’s Water Resources Control Board to consider steep fines of up to $500 per day.

The San Jose Mercury News reports that higher fines would go to those who soak their lawns or use a hose without a nozzle, for example. If approved, this would be the first time the state has imposed such regulations.

Although Gov. Brown’s goal was to cut down on water usage by 20% through a combination of mandatory and voluntary restrictions, statewide water use has been reduced by only 5% so far.

“Having a dirty car and a brown lawn should be a badge of honor because it shows you care about your community,” Felicia Marcus, the board’s chairwoman, said in a teleconference. “We don’t know when it will rain again. It’s prudent to act as if it won’t.”

She also said that Californians should prepare for further restrictions: “What we’re proposing here as an opening salvo is the bare minimum. If it doesn’t rain later this fall, we certainly will consider more stringent measures.”

While most of California’s water is used to irrigate Central Valley farms, the new regulations would target urban water-users, where more than half of the water is used on landscaping, Marcus said.

A Stanford Alumni Magazine article pointed out that if climate change model projections play out, the Sierra’s spring snowpack, which supplies water for tens of millions of Californians, will have dwindled and some of the massive aquifers underlying Central Valley farms may dry up from continued overuse. Making things worse, California’s population, now 38 million, is projected at 46 million by 2035—and more than 50 million by 2050.

“In the past, we have developed a water system that does a great job of meeting our needs—the needs of growing cities, the needs of growing agricultural areas,” said Barton Thompson, a Stanford law professor. “But the approaches that we used were not sustainable, and they are at risk of much more extreme drought conditions than we have today.”

He noted that problems of California and the West cannot be ignored, as 2013 was the driest year since the 1800s Gold Rush era, when record-keeping began. Even if spring rains arrive, they would not be enough to make up the deficit. What’s more, the Sierra snowpack—comprising a third of the state’s water supply—ended its last season at just 18% of its average level.

Courtesy of Stanford University