The recent series of atmospheric rivers dumped enough rain and snow on Northern California to give us hope that the end of the drought may be near. California’s Department of Water Resources is reporting that the state’s snow water equivalent, or how much water the snowpack is expected to yield, is almost double what we expect at this time of year. According to department officials, it’s “the best start to our snowpack in over a decade.”
The tremendous amount of water flowing through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the Pacific Ocean is additional evidence of this winter’s bounty. The region depends on this outflow for ecosystem health and to reduce salinity in the Delta, where many Bay Area communities get their water. The outflow is so abundant now that it’s more than 20 times the threshold set by the state to meet environmental standards.
That’s the good news.
The bad news — especially for communities in the San Joaquin Valley, millions of acres of the country’s most productive farmland and the consumers who depend on it — is that we aren’t doing enough to capture these flows when they occur. That’s because decades-old regulations limit how much water can be captured — even water is flowing over the banks of creeks and streams and trees are being toppled.
The rule preventing us from saving more of this near-biblical flood is based on fish behavior under certain historic conditions. However, we are clearly living through exceptional circumstances, and these rules — and California’s rule-makers — are utterly incapable of adjusting. That could be the difference between getting out of the drought and suffering through another dry year.
Instead of relying on the latest data, as we do for most of the decisions we make, California’s water regulators have to follow rules based on arbitrary dates and one-time occurrences. The pumps in place to deliver water to farms, homes and businesses are currently running at one-third of capacity even though billions of gallons of water are flowing to the ocean — far more than the state’s environmental regulations require.
As California struggles to recover from three years of intense drought, and as the San Joaquin Valley desperately tries to restore its groundwater supplies, our mismanagement of such a typically scarce resource is mystifying.
California’s water supply is famously fickle. And our changing climate is delivering wetter wet years and drier dry years than in decades past. But we have enormous opportunities to build the infrastructure we need to capture flood flows like these.
Both the state and federal governments have made funding available to repair our existing infrastructure and build new projects, including canals and pipelines that can carry excess flows to the San Joaquin Valley to replenish the region’s groundwater.
Diverting water during these floods would give us an opportunity to share in the abundance benefiting California’s natural environment. And it would provide the resources farmers need to deliver the safe, local, affordable food California families depend on.
We need modern policies that use the best science available to tell us that when water is available, threats to fish and wildlife are minimal, and it’s OK to save water for the future.
Rather than accepting our changing climate as an inevitable path to scarcity and relegating vast parts of our state to perpetual drought, let’s employ better, science-based management to ensure water abundance for all Californians.
Ian LeMay is the president of the California Fresh Fruit Association and the chairman of the Water Blueprint for the San Joaquin Valley.