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Atmospheric River to Bring Precipitation to the U.S. West Coast

A strong low-pressure system associated with an upper-level shortwave trough will impact much of the US West Coast today through Thursday, with the development of an atmospheric river over Northern California. After the initial AR, a second low-pressure system will develop offshore and travel down the coast, bringing another round of precipitation to the region Friday into Sunday.

PPIC Video: Surplus and Shortage — California’s Water Balancing Act

Sandy Kerl of the San Diego County Water Authority said that investing in reservoir capacity was key after the county suffered a crippling drought in the late ‘80s. “We now have enough storage capacity…to sustain the population at a 75% service level for six months,” she said.

Kerl made the comment during the PPIC Water Policy Center’s annual fall conference in Sacramento on November 18.

U.S. Warns California Cities to Prepare for Possible Water Cuts and Fourth Year of Drought

Federal water managers on Monday warned California cities and industrial users receiving water from the Central Valley Project to prepare for a fourth year of drought and possibly “extremely limited water supply” during 2023.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, an agency of the Interior Department that oversees water resource management, said drought conditions in California have persisted despite early storms this month, and warned of looming water conservation actions.

PPIC-Sandra Kerl-Drought-California

PPIC Video: Surplus and Shortage — California’s Water Balancing Act

After three years of virtual events, the PPIC Water Policy Center’s annual fall conference made a welcome return to an in-person format in Sacramento on Friday, November 18. The half-day event began with a welcome from PPIC Water Policy Center assistant director Caity Peterson and a presentation by senior fellow Jeffrey Mount.

This year was “brutal” for agriculture, said Thad Bettner of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District during the first panel, moderated by PPIC Water senior fellow Alvar Escriva-Bou. “We took about 300 square miles out of production.” The drought hit rural and urban communities hard, too: Kyle Jones of the Community Water Center said that “over 1,300 [drinking water] wells went dry.” Bill Hasencamp of Metropolitan Water District described in vivid detail how once-reliable water management strategies are failing, in part due to a lack of interconnections: his agency had to restrict deliveries to “one-third of our service area despite having a record amount of dry-year storage reserves.”

Drought and climate change

The environment suffered as well, though Sandi Matsumoto of The Nature Conservancy praised the State Water Board, River Partners, and others for efforts to aid wildlife. Well-timed curtailments in some basins, she said, were helpful. But the stakes are high, she said: “Over half of California’s salmon and steelhead species are on a trajectory towards extinction.” And as Hasencamp put it, “drought and climate change have outstripped us.”

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Sandra Kerl commended Scripps Institution of Oceanography for their “game-changing” atmospheric river forecasts—and panelists highlighted the promise of Forecast-Informed Reservoir Operations (FIRO) as a tool to make the most of storage infrastructure. Photo: Screenshot from PPIC Water Policy Center annual fall conference Nov. 18.

Reservoir storage capacity

Capturing more water during wet periods will help California weather the dry periods, said participants in the second panel, moderated by research fellow Andrew Ayres. Sandy Kerl of the San Diego County Water Authority said that investing in reservoir capacity was key after the county suffered a crippling drought in the late ‘80s. “We now have enough storage capacity…to sustain the population at a 75% service level for six months,” she said.

Socking water away in underground water banks is another important strategy, said Mike Tognolini of EBMUD. Such projects rely on good relationships. After some early missteps in a water banking pilot project, he said “we [now] have solid partnerships with local water agencies in San Joaquin County and, importantly…with growers in the region.”

Groundwater recharge and water banking

Aaron Fukuda of the Tulare Irrigation District emphasized the importance of trust-building too. “I tell everybody when you want to strike up a partnership, just take them out to dinner,” he said, to laughter. Groundwater recharge works best when relationships are formed first, and how you approach water right holders matters, he said. “When you ask a farmer for help, they will help.”

Kerl commended Scripps Institution of Oceanography for their “game-changing” atmospheric river forecasts—and panelists highlighted the promise of Forecast-Informed Reservoir Operations (FIRO) as a tool to make the most of storage infrastructure. Local agencies are also making good progress in accounting for water once it’s in the ground—key to facilitating more water banking projects.

And, as Julie Rentner of River Partners noted, the stakes for managing the increasingly flood-prone wet periods of our changing climate could not be higher. In 1997, the San Joaquin Valley was hit by a flood that broke the valley’s flood control system in 17 places. Climate projections show that a flood three to five times that magnitude “will likely hit the San Joaquin Valley in our lifetimes.” The damage, she said, would be incalculable. But California’s “new Central Valley flood-protection plan…takes a solid look at multi-benefit projects” that slow floods, recharge groundwater, and support habitat restoration.

‘Climate whiplash’

The day’s final panel looked at policy’s role in responding to climate conditions. PPIC Water Policy Center director Ellen Hanak sat down with California Department of Water Resources director Karla Nemeth, State Water Board chair E. Joaquín Esquivel, and US Army Civil Works Program assistant secretary Mike Connor. Hanak asked these policy heavy-hitters to share progress and gaps in “this moment of climate whiplash.”

“We’re now in a moment where it’s like ‘Everything, Everywhere, All at Once,’” said Karla Nemeth. “We’re in a multiverse….everything is moving.” Hotter temperatures have now become “their own water demand,” she said, and Californians need to embrace water recycling, desalination, recharge, and conservation—all while keeping water affordable. But California also needs to think big, she said. “We can’t be afraid of taking out big infrastructure or putting in big infrastructure.” As an example of the former, she noted progress on removal of the dams on the Klamath River. And for the latter, she noted that “the Delta conveyance project is enormously important to climate adaptation.”

Hydrology and resilience

Esquivel said that water projects that were state-of-the-art 50 years ago now find themselves “mismatched for the climate that we have.” While data has improved, “data alone is not enough. It has to turn into better decision making.” A “greater fidelity to reality,” he said, will be essential. He said compliance across multiple basins with water right curtailments is heartening. “People want to use rights in ways that help support the resilience of us all.”

Mike Connor shared that much of the country still struggles to understand how profoundly conditions have changed. In one eight-week period this summer, he said, “there were six one-in-one-thousand-year precipitation events across the continental US.” He said that “restoring hydrologic function wherever we can…always adds to water availability by keeping it in the system.” All panelists agreed that increased funding, including from the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, will be a boon to efforts.

We invite you to watch the videos from this event:

(Editor’s Note: Permission to republish blog post granted by PPIC Water Policy Center)

As California Droughts Intensify, Ecosystems and Rural Communities Will Bear the Brunt

Drought, human-caused climate change, invasive species and a “legacy” of environmental issues are permanently altering California’s landscape and placing some communities and ecosystems at increasing risk, a panel of experts told water officials recently. Invasive species and decades of disruptions from massive land and water developments are partly responsible for a continuous decline in native California species, experts told the California Water Commission on Nov. 16.

To Save Salmon, U.S. Approves Largest Dam Removal in History

A U.S. agency seeking to restore habitat for endangered fish gave final approval on Thursday to decommission four dams straddling the California-Oregon border, the largest dam removal undertaking in U.S. history. Dam removal is expected to improve the health of the Klamath River, the route that Chinook salmon and endangered coho salmon take from the Pacific Ocean to their upstream spawning grounds, and from where the young fish return to the sea.

Water Agencies Unite and Commit to Reducing Demands on Colorado River

Recognizing that a reliable water supply is critical to all economies and communities relying on the drought-stricken Colorado River Basin, more than 30 water agencies and providers have committed to take additional actions to reducing water demands and helping protect the Colorado River system.

Is Drought in Arizona and the Southwest the New Normal?

Two decades of the Southwest megadrought have marked Arizona’s driest period in 1,200 years. With climate change in full swing, greenhouse emissions well above pledged targets and the state facing cutbacks to its share of dwindling Colorado River water, many wonder: Is drought the new normal?

A Shift in Groundwater Perspective

When it comes to natural disasters, the sudden, swift devastation of landslides, mudslides, and sinkholes may get all the attention — but natural resource scientists can attest that it’s the slow sinking of the ground surface that is just as real a danger. “Subsidence often gets neglected because it is slow moving. You don’t recognize it until you start seeing damage,” says Michelle Sneed, a land subsidence specialist at the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

Lake Mead’s Dire Drought-Stricken Future Foreshadowed at Deadpool Reservoir

Operations at one of Spain’s largest hydropower plants have been halted due to drought-like conditions, foreshadowing the future of the rapidly receding Lake Mead.

Electric utility company Endesa SA has shut down its facility in Mequinenza, Zaragoza, Spain after its water levels receded below 23 percent capacity, Bloomberg reported. This is below the minimum required to produce electricity. The plant first opened in 1966, and until now, has never been shut down.