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California needs to prepare to live with less water, new report suggests

Houseboats sit in the drought lowered waters of Oroville Lake, near Oroville, Calif., Tuesday, April 19, 2022.
Rich Pedroncelli, File
AP Photo
Houseboats sit in the drought lowered waters of Oroville Lake, near Oroville, Calif., Tuesday, April 19, 2022.

Storms arriving in the region may seem to signal a promising start for snowfall to ease California’s prolonged drought. But for now, the overall outlook is not optimistic.

Federal climate scientists at NOAA have forecasted a warmer and drier than average winter for California and the broader Western U.S. and much of the state is experiencing severe to exceptional drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

“We have a tendency to focus on the now: It's raining outside and it's cold and it's snowing, it's delightful,” said Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow with the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. “It's a drop in the bucket. And this is a really vanilla storm. We need those frog-chokers that we expect in the winter, those really big storms with atmospheric rivers.”

In November, the PPIC released a report covering the state of water in California, which found that rising temperatures and multi-year droughts have depleted the state’s water supply in reservoirs, groundwater reserves and the snowpack.

“Even if we do everything right, water supplies are likely to decline,” the report reads. “The grand challenge for 21st-century water management in California is learning how to thrive with less.”

Authors of the report also noted the state has started to feel tangible impacts of a changing climate. Most notably, California has seen an uptick in dramatic and rapid swings between wetter wet years and drier dry years.

“These changes are posing widespread challenges for our businesses, communities, and ecosystems — and often hitting low-income residents the hardest,” PPIC Water Policy Center Director Ellen Hanak said in the report. “We must put all our resources into responding calmly, with data and a clear goal: To protect people and the environment from the worst impacts of our changing climate.”

So, what can Californians expect in the upcoming year as our climate’s future becomes more uncertain? To help explain how the state can thrive with less water, CapRadio’s Insight Host Vicki Gonzalez sat down with Mount with the PPIC, who helped author the report.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

On biggest takeaways from this year’s report

The key is that there's an elephant in the room that we dance around all the time, because that's what you do when you've got an elephant in the room. We are looking at a future in which there's likely to be less available water — I mean available to supply the three key sectors, which is communities, farms and the environment — so we're looking at how to thrive with less.

The argument we make in this report is we can in fact [do that]. There’s plenty of evidence that we have, we're still here. We've added 10 million people since 1980 and we're still using the same amount of water we were back then, so we can adapt to these changes. But to be clear, we're not looking at more available supply.

On the changes we’ve seen in drought conditions since annual reports began

Something that climate scientists were predicting 15 [or] 20 years ago is that we were going to see changes in conditions where we'd have wild swings between wet and dry. Our whole water supply infrastructure system is built around basically the climate of the mid-20th century, so this is a new thing for us to deal with … We've been breaking things for the last 10 years is the best way to describe it, and in the process of breaking things, we're finding weaknesses in our systems that we need to address if we're going to cope with these wild swings between wetter wets and drier drys.

On how drought in other states impacts California

This is one of the things that people in Sacramento forget, that we're tied to a grid, that's the best way to describe it. Think of it like the electricity grid that we have in California. We are part of a large grid that serves most of the people in the state, and that includes the whole Colorado River basin.

All of the seven states that are part of the Colorado River basin [are in a] megadrought, which is a phrase that always makes us wince when we hear it, but that's what we call it. The megadrought has spilled over into California in the last 10 years, we've only had two wet years. That's pretty grim when you think about it. Well, that's what it's been like for the last 22 years in the Southwest. And if you live in Los Angeles, which is the economic engine of California, you can't forget that you are heavily reliant on the Colorado River for supply. And things are looking pretty dire in the Colorado [River], I can't sugarcoat it, 22 years of dry conditions is really coming to bite.

On managing the dramatic swings in the state’s water supply

Most of the time we really compartmentalize the way we manage water. We get drought-focused management, and completely different agencies and organizations are on the flood management side. What's been happening over the last 10 years, with credit to California and the federal government and local agencies, they're really trying to merge these two.

One of the key themes of this particular report is that we really do have to do a better job of taking advantage of these rare, very wet periods, because if we don't, we suffer in between much more than we need to. So wet year strategies are as critical as dry year strategies.

On how important conservation is on an individual level 

As we discovered this year and during this particular long drought, there's still room for conservation. Every time you drive through a community — particularly in the Sacramento area — you see vast lawns. Half of the water use that we have in urban areas goes to outdoor irrigation, so we still have some room to adapt in terms of conservation.

But there are areas in the state where there isn't a lot of room left to adapt, those are the places that don't have large lawns, that don't have a lot of landscaping, and they have wrung almost as much water as they can out of their system through conservation. So that's the challenge, is we just basically get what we call ‘hardened demand.’ At some point we've wrung out all the water we can out of that system, so we're going to need some other approaches.

On what solutions are being developed to fix inequities in access to safe, clean water 

Again, this is one of those places where we used to just talk about it and now we're actually starting to do stuff about it, and it helps that there's money available. This is one of the problems that can be solved with money. This [includes] drilling new wells, connecting wells to larger, deeper wells, this involves consolidation of these small community systems, which are woefully inefficient. There's a variety of things that can be done. So actually we're headed in the right direction. We've got a long way to go on equity in these communities.

I want to say that the other equity issue we often don't talk about [is] about a third of urban Californians are people who are low income. To solve our water supply systems, we're going to have to make a lot of investments. More than 90% of what we spend on water in California comes from ratepayers … So the equity discussion needs to include people in the cities as well as these rural communities, these disadvantaged rural communities. That is a larger conversation that's going on all over the place right now. And I think it's very healthy.

Vicki Gonzalez is a Murrow and Emmy award-winning journalist with nearly 15 years of experience as a reporter, news anchor and producer.
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