Over the past few years, many parts of the country have experienced wetter wets and drier drys. You could call it “water whiplash.” California has seen five years of severe drought – followed by a deluge of rain this past winter.
Is this a recent phenomenon? Only partly, says Buzz Thompson of Stanford University, adding that drought and flood cycles have been reported in California since the Civil War.
“So this is always been normal,” he says. “But with climate change, those juxtapositions of floods and droughts are going to get even worse. We’re gonna see them even more, and the conditions at both extremes are gonna be worse.
“And it’s going to be true not only in California, but throughout the United States.”
Those extremes of want and plenty are wreaking havoc on our agriculture, infrastructure and urban water supplies, not to mention wildlife and groundwater levels.
Felicia Marcus heads up the State Water Resources Control Board, which is responsible for monitoring and helping to maintain California’s delicate water balance.
“Whether it's the drought or now these rains, we get reminded all the time of the need to prepare, prepare, prepare -- and the need to deal with our infrastructure,” Marcus says. “It may not be that sexy, but it's incredibly important.”
A wet winter may seem like a blessing to thirsty Californians. But if our dams and levees can’t handle the downpour, it can lead to disasters like the Oroville Dam spill. And if our reservoirs aren’t equipped for adequate storage, all of that abundance goes down the drain – figuratively and literally.
Farmers like Don Cameron have learned to adapt by making major changes in their methods, from the crops they grow to their watering systems.
“Around 2008, 2009 we switched our method of irrigation to subsurface drip for primarily all our crops,” Cameron says. “And we’ve been able to cut back on our water use, we’ve been able to use less water and produce more crop.
“But as we’re looking forward, we’re seeing that our springs are becoming warmer, we’re not getting the frosts, we’re planting earlier…
But, he cautions, even as springs become warmer and farmers are forced to plant earlier, “we’re growing peppers all the way into November. So we’re trying to take advantage of those situations to help us find better markets and be a little more diverse.”
Climate change is affecting not only the amount of precipitation, but its substance. Instead of snowpack, which melts and releases steadily throughout the year, California is seeing more and more winter rainfall. This means less water in storage and calls for rethinking our overall water management.
“There are a lot of solutions that we haven't yet even begun to tap at the level we can tap them,” says Marcus. “So there's an awful lot that we can do.”
She applauds Cameron and others like him for their forward thinking and creativity.
“It’s that integrated kind of thinking with environmentalists, government agencies and farmers, figuring out how to solve problems versus talking past each other, that we need more than ever,” Marcus says. “And I'm seeing it happen.”
This program is made possible by support from the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation.