Drought, storms prove California desperately needs more water storage

The Sacramento River flows almost bank-to-bank past downtown Sacramento after heavy rains on Wednesday, Jan. 11, carrying millions of gallons to the Pacific Ocean.
The Sacramento River flows almost bank-to-bank past downtown Sacramento after heavy rains on Wednesday, Jan. 11, carrying millions of gallons to the Pacific Ocean. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

After a half-decade of drought, California has been buffeted this winter by a series of powerful rain and snowstorms that dumped countless gallons of water on the state’s watersheds.

Some of the deluge was captured in the form of mountain snows that will feed rivers and streams during the annual spring melt. But at lower elevations, it was rain, some retained in man-made reservoirs that had been seriously depleted, but most flowing swiftly to the Pacific Ocean.

At one point last week, flows on the Sacramento River and its American River tributary were more than 130,000 cubic feet each second, much of which was diverted into bypass channels to protect the state capital from flooding that periodically devastated the city during the 19th century.

Let’s put that flow in perspective. Each cubic foot is equates to 7.5 gallons, so that meant nearly a million gallons were passing through, or around, Sacramento every second – enough water to fill an empty Folsom Lake-sized reservoir in about four days.

As the Sacramento River was running high, fast and dirty last week, a few blocks away, in the state Capitol, Gov. Jerry Brown was unveiling a new state budget. He renewed his annual pitch to build financial reserves so that when recession hits, as it inevitably will, the impact on the state budget will be cushioned. It’s good advice, whether it involves a state budget or a family’s finances. Having a cushioning reserve is, as Brown terms, it “prudence.”

But what is prudent in a state’s budget also is prudent in a state’s water supply.

The drought that the storms ended has been the hydrological equivalent of a severe economic recession, and proved once again that California has not provided enough water storage to sustain its nearly 40 million residents and its economy when precipitation is scant.

Moreover, if climate change predictions prove true, it would mean California could depend even less on the natural reservoir of mountain snowpacks because it would receive more of its precipitation as rain, and thus would logically need more man-made storage to close the gap.

Had we done what we should have done decades ago, and provided more reservoirs – such as the long-delayed, off-stream Sites project on the west side of the upper Sacramento Valley – or built systems to recharge depleted underground aquifers, we could have retained some of those heavy flows this month. Even a tiny percentage would make a huge difference when drought once again hits.

Oddly, relatively arid Southern California has been doing a better job in that respect than Northern California. The south state has built two new reservoirs, expanded old ones, undertaken extensive conservation and reuse programs. Most recently, it opened a major desalination plant and preliminary work has begun on at least one more.

In Northern California, meanwhile, Sites and other storage projects have been kicking around for decades without decisive action.

Perhaps it’s because misplaced environmental sensitivity is stronger in the north, or perhaps because one superagency dominates water planning in the south while in the north, it’s scattered among hundreds of agencies that incessantly spar with each other.

We’ve gotten two wake-up calls – a severe drought, and a series of major storms. They’re telling us we’ve neglected the state’s most important issue.

Dan Walters writes for The Sacramento Bee on issues of statewide significance; reach him at 916-321-1195 or dwalters@sacbee.com