At his inaugural Speaker Series on July 15, California Secretary for Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot led a discussion on restoring local wildlife species and habitats by reactivating floodplains. The Secretary’s Speaker Series provides a public discussion on emerging ideas and priorities in the natural resources arena. It is an opportunity for Secretary Crowfoot and a diverse panel of experts to inform the public on plans to improve the environment through science and policy. “So much in water policy in the state can be characterized as conflict; fish versus farm, urban versus rural, north versus south. One important priority of Governor Newsom is to try to break through that old paradigm to find ways that work across different stakeholder groups,” Crowfoot said…
The San Joaquin River – the second longest river in California – was once home to one of the largest populations of spring-run Chinook salmon, a species of fish that is now classified as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Thanks to a collaborative multi-agency effort that includes the Department of Water Resources (DWR), spring-run Chinook salmon are successfully returning to the San Joaquin River for the first time in more than 65 years. At the end of May 2019, 23 adult spring-run Chinook returned, surviving their nearly 370-mile round trip journey to the Pacific Ocean as juvenile fish and the trip back to the San Joaquin River as adults to spawn – typically a two to five-year process.
On Tuesday, the Department of Water Resources (DWR) released the Final 2018 Update to the California Water Plan. Update 2018 presents a vision for greater collaboration and alignment among water sectors and institutions, sound strategies, and long-term investments needed for the sustainable management of the California’s water supply.
As directed by California Water Code, DWR publishes an update to the California Water Plan every five years that incorporates the latest information and science, serving as the comprehensive strategic plan for how water is managed throughout the state.
A better understanding and forecasting of atmospheric rivers could improve flood control and water management in California.
The 2019-20 California state budget includes $9.25 million to pay for research into how the state Department of Water Resources can more accurately track the intensity and landfall locations of atmospheric rivers. About half of the state’s annual rainfall and 90 percent of its flooding come from such events.
“Improved forecasting and monitoring of atmospheric river storms would benefit not only California, but the Southwest, in managing our water supply,” said Kelley Gage, director of water resources for the San Diego County Water Authority. “With better forecasting, water managers could also prepare and plan for flooding events caused by the atmospheric rivers.”
The science behind atmospheric rivers. Graphic: NOAA
Rivers in the sky
Atmospheric rivers are relatively long, narrow regions in the atmosphere – like rivers in the sky – that transport most of the water vapor outside of the tropics, according to NOAA. When the atmospheric rivers make landfall, they release the water vapor in the form or rain or snow.
“The rivers can stretch from 250 to 370 miles wide and carry a water amount more than 7 times the volume of the Mississippi River,” said Alexi Schnell, water resources specialist with the Water Authority.
The research funds were allocated to the Department of Water Resources to “improve observations, forecasts and decisions in support of atmospheric river precipitation events” as part of the DWR’s Research, Mitigation, and Climate Forecasting Program.
Volatile water resources
A new study led by Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego suggests that a new regime of wet and dry extremes is emerging in California. The study shows that the projected increase of extreme precipitation is likely to be caused by streams of moisture in the sky known as atmospheric rivers.
The study was published July 9 in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.
“California already has the most volatile water resources in the country,” according to a news release from Scripps. “Scripps scientists discovered that the state’s precipitation, as it becomes less frequent but preferentially stronger, will vacillate even more wildly between extremes of drought and flooding as a consequence of climate change.”
The federal Bureau of Reclamation, the Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center, NOAA, the U.S. Geological Survey, and NASA funded the study, “Precipitation regime change in Western North America: The role of Atmospheric Rivers.”
California weather extremes
“As Mediterranean climate regions around the world are becoming more subtropical, the dry season is expanding. California is no exception,” said Alexander Gershunov, a climate scientist at Scripps. “What is exceptional about California is that the heavy precipitation is projected to become more extreme. We knew this from our past work. Now we have identified the mechanism responsible for this bolstering of extremes, and that gives us a more nuanced understanding of what to expect from future hydroclimate and a clearer interpretation of ongoing changes.”
Atmospheric Rivers boost snowpack
During the 2018-19 winter, atmospheric river events significantly increased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains. Both areas are key sources of water supply for the Southwest, including California and San Diego County.
Precipitation in the contiguous U.S. was above average from January to June 2019, according to a NOAA climate report released this week. The report said the 19.05 inches during the six-month period was 3.74 inches above average and the wettest such period in the 125-year record.
The January-to-June 2019 precipitation map showed California’s statewide precipitation was “above average” and “much above average.”
The Department of Water Resources (DWR) has issued a notice that it will seek an updated environmental permit to operate the State Water Project through a state-based approach in partnership with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW). The department’s notice that it will prepare an Environmental Impact Report for long-term operation of the SWP is available here. “The State Water Project provides many benefits from flood protection to water supply and is operated to ensure the health of California’s ecosystem,” said Karla Nemeth, DWR Director.
After a series of storms, multiple “atmospheric rivers” and Sierra deluges, Northern California can boast an impressive amount of snowfall this winter. The National Weather Service said Tuesday that over the course of the season, more than 50 feet of snow has fallen at the highest elevations. And across the state, California’s snowpack is doing quite well as a result. As of Tuesday, the average statewide snow-water equivalent is a whopping 3 feet, 6 inches, which is 160 percent of normal for this time of year, according to the California Department of Water Resources. Drought conditions have been pushed to the far corners of the state, with nearly 90 percent of the state not under drought conditions, according to the federal National Drought Mitigation Center.
The real-world implications of Gov. Newsom’s rejection of the twin tunnels project became more apparent last week as the Department of Water Resources (DWR) and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation requested and were granted a 60-day stay of hearings with the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB). “We agree that the SWRCB water rights hearing should be stayed while the state determines what project it wishes to pursue,” said Osha Meserve, a Sacramento-based environmental attorney representing counties, local agencies and environmental groups opposed to WaterFix. “We are urging an open and transparent process to assess alternatives to the twin tunnels concept rejected by the Governor that could be more readily implemented.”
This past December, the Department of Water Resources (DWR) reconnected electricity from Pacific Gas & Electric’s Table Mountain Substation to the Ronald B. Robie Thermalito Pumping-Generating Plant in Oroville, a major step towards returning the plant to full operation. A fire in November 2012 destroyed the plant’s operating capacity, requiring closure of the facility and its disconnection from the state’s electrical grid.