Bigger climate challenges are ahead, water chief says

TURLOCK — The state's top water official said Thursday night that he is bracing for another year of drought and for even bigger challenges from climate change in the years ahead.

Lester Snow, director of the California Department of Water Resources, provided an overview of the issues to nearly 200 people at California State University, Stanislaus.

Snow said that this week's big storm notwithstanding, the state faces the prospect of a fourth straight dry year. The reservoirs on average are 68 percent full as the new rainy season begins, compared with 172 percent after the wet 2006, he said.

State and federal officials are trying to ease the way for water transfers and other short-term remedies, but Snow said the long-term solution has to include greater capture of the wet-year flows.

"We have to have more storage in the state of California," he said. "It can be surface water. It can be groundwater. It probably has to be both."

He said the current system relies heavily on the snowpack to store water, but a warming climate could increase the proportion of rain in the storms.

Snow said climate change also could raise sea levels, pushing salty water into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the source of fresh water for two-thirds of California.

The delta also is at risk from earthquakes that could break its levees, he said.

Snow visited in the midst of promising efforts by lawmakers and the governor to finally craft a solution to the state's water woes. He said the goal should be to increase storage while encouraging water conservation and restoring parts of the delta ecosystem.

The plan could include a new canal or tunnel that would bypass most of the delta's maze of channels and keep fish from being damaged by the massive pumps that send water south.

"This, by any stretch, is a huge canal," Snow said. "It would be over a football field wide at the bottom."

He acknowledged the severe water cutbacks in the western and southern portions of the San Joaquin Valley this year, but he said they mainly resulted from the drought rather than delta fish protections.

The talk was part of the Agricultural Studies Speaker Series, a twice-a-year event sponsored by the university and Yosemite Farm Credit.

Ashlynne Donahue, one of the many agriculture students in the audience, said the topic is a vital one.

"It affects us in a huge way," she said. "Any environmental class you're in, you're learning about the water issues."

Jarrod Martin, another ag student, said farmers can be part of the water conservation effort, "but there's a lot that the general public can do, too."

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at or 578-2385.