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As Wildfires Grow More Intense, California Water Managers Are Rewriting Emergency Playbooks

It’s been a year since two devastating wildfires on opposite ends of California underscored the harsh new realities facing water districts and cities serving communities in or adjacent to the state’s fire-prone wildlands. Fire doesn’t just level homes, it can contaminate water, scorch watersheds, damage delivery systems and upend an agency’s finances.

Mammoth Mountain received record snowfall in May 2019. Photo: Mammoth Mountain, Inc. California Reservoirs

Water Year 2020 Begins With Robust Reservoir Storage

Last winter was a bountiful one in terms of water supply for California, but it’s still too early to tell whether 2020 will be as generous.

The 2018-19 winter was one for the record books, with above-average precipitation. Snow continued to fall in late-spring, with several inches or more in the Sierra Nevada and the Southern California mountains.

Ski seasons were extended into May and June, delighting skiers and resort operators.

The snowfall, and a boost from late-season storms, increased the northern Sierra snowpack in May 2019, which was “atypical,” according to Alexi Schnell, water resources specialist with the San Diego County Water Authority.

The statewide Sierra Nevada snowpack was 164% of normal, with the northern Sierra at 172% of normal on May 23, 2019.

Major California Reservoirs Above Historical Average on November 8, 2019

Most major California reservoirs are above their historical averages as of November 8, 2019. (Graphic: California DWR)

Water Year 2020 begins with robust reservoir storage

The 2019 water year (October 1 – September 30) pushed snowpack levels well-above average and swelled major reservoirs to above-average. There were more than 30 atmospheric rivers, with many making landfall in Northern California. The state’s snowpack on April 1 was 175% of average.

The California Department of Water Resources said that makes a great start to 2020.

“We start the new water year in a good place,” said Karla Nemeth, director of the DWR. “However, we all know too well that California’s weather and precipitation are highly variable. What we have today could be gone tomorrow.”

Above average rainfall in San Diego

While the biggest gains in precipitation over the past year were in Northern California, the San Diego region also benefited. Water Year 2019 ended with the region at 125% of average rainfall at Lindbergh Field. The rainfall helped increase supplies in regional reservoirs.

Schnell cautioned that the climatological cycle in California can bring several consecutive years of drought, like the 2015-17 period, which prompted mandatory water-use reductions statewide.

Above-average temperatures in California in 2019

NOAA reported on November 6 that California experienced above-average to much-above-average temperatures from January through October 2019. The average U.S. temperature during that same period was 55.5°F, (0.5 of a degree above 20th-century average) “ranking in the warmest third of the record,” according to NOAA.

NOAA reported that California has had above-to much-above-average temperatures from January to October 2019.

NOAA reported that California has had above-to much-above-average temperatures from January to October 2019. (Graphic: NOAA)

Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes, or CW3E, just released an analysis that calculated the odds of water year 2020 reaching 100% of water year normal precipitation totals. The odds range from 20 to 40% of the Southwest reaching 100% of water year normal precipitation.

Odds of reaching normal precipitation for Water Year 2020. (Graphic: CW3E, Scripps, UC San Diego)

National Weather Service seasonal outlook for precipitation

The three-month seasonal precipitation outlook for November-December-January by the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center shows below-normal to normal precipitation in Central to Northern California and equal chances of below, near- or above-normal in southern California and much of the Southwest.

The November-December-January precipitation outlook from the National Weather Service.

The November-December-January precipitation outlook from the National Weather Service. (Graphic: NWS/NOAA)

“There will always be fluctuations based on weather and other factors, but the San Diego region continues to embrace water-use efficiency,” said Schnell. “The Water Authority and its 24 member agencies continue to increase San Diego County’s water supply reliability through supply diversification to provide a safe, reliable water supply to the region.”

Supreme Court Leans Toward Expanding Clean Water Act To Protect Oceans From Wastewater

Supreme Court justices, both conservative and liberal, appeared skeptical Wednesday of a Trump administration argument that the federal Clean Water Act should not apply to sewage plant wastewater that flows into the ground and eventually seeps into federally protected waters, such as rivers or oceans.

The case from Hawaii has emerged as a major test of the federal anti-pollution law’s scope even as the Environmental Protection Agency under President Trump cuts back on enforcement. If justices side with environmentalists, their ruling could extend federal regulation to water treatment plants across the country.

Imperial County Declares New River Emergency, Sends Newsom Demands For Salton Sea

Imperial County is doubling down on its efforts to wrest help from state and federal officials to clean up raw sewage and other pollutants flowing into the New River, and to tamp down lung-clogging dust along the fast-drying Salton Sea.

Two weeks after county supervisors declared a local air pollution emergency at the sea, they voted unanimously again this week to proclaim a local emergency at the New River due to the discharge of raw sewage and other pollutants that cause “extreme peril to the health, safety, and welfare of people and properties near and around the river.”

Rep. Levin Touts Bipartisan Efforts to Fund Water Supply Reliability

Rep. Mike Levin said California’s innovations and investments in water supply reliability and renewable energy are a model for the nation – and that the state’s efforts protect the environment while growing the economy at the same time.

Levin, an attorney and congressman from San Juan Capistrano, represents the 49th District, which includes, Encinitas, Carlsbad, Vista, Oceanside and a portion of southern Orange County.

He made his remarks November 6 during a Legislative Roundtable at the San Diego County Water Authority attended by water agency board members and staff, local civic and business leaders and Citizens Water Academy graduates.

Study: Switching to Solar And Wind Power Will Reduce Groundwater Use

Increasing energy output from solar and wind power could result in less groundwater usage and more drought-resistant environments, according to a study published Wednesday in Nature Communications.

Researchers found solar and wind power, often viewed as valuable tools to help reduce reliance on fossil fuels and combat air pollution, can also lead to significantly less groundwater usage in areas where water management is most crucial, such as California. These reductions in spent groundwater, according to the study, have the potential to increase resistance to severe, long-lasting droughts.

California Wildfire Outlook Through End of 2019, Early 2020 | Need to Know

Each month the National Interagency Fire Center releases a report on the likelihood of wildfire development across the continental United States. Here’s a breakdown of the most recent report released on November 1, 2019.

The Sacramento Valley and Foothills, entire Bay Area and the western slopes of the Cascade-Sierra range are projected to have above-normal significant fire potential in Novemberwith noted emphasis on the first half of the month.

Warmer and drier than normal conditions to continue into the middle of November across the region. In fact, no rainfall is expected within the region through the first week of November.

San Diego Taking Steps To Revive Landmark Water Recycling Program Amid Legal Dispute

San Diego took key legal steps Tuesday aimed at reviving efforts to construct the city’s $4 billion Pure Water pipeline, which was abruptly halted this summer by a legal dispute over the use of unionized construction workers.

The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to remove pro-union language from contracts for Pure Water, a recycling system that would purify treated sewage into drinking water and supply one-third of San Diego’s water supply by 2035.

The pro-union language had prompted a judge to issue an injunction halting the project. Council members said Tuesday they hope removing it will persuade the judge to let city officials resume awarding construction contracts.

Opinion: The Promise of Small Hydropower and Holistic Renewable Energy Grid

At present, solar and wind energy are highly promoted as renewable energy technologies — clean technologies in terms of their carbon footprint. However, the most prominent renewable energy source for generating electricity is hydropower. The history of hydropower for generating electricity in the U.S. goes back to late 19th century.