You can say everybody who’s a politician is getting into the drought act. They’re all coming up with solutions to end all solutions.
It would help if Mother Nature were giving her advice to the office-bearers, and who knows if they’d listen.
After California recorded its driest January and February in more than 100 years of records in the Sierra Nevada, Gov. Newsom announced this week that the state is spending an additional $22.5 million to respond to the immediate drought emergency.
The additional $22.5 million allocation includes more funding for the Department of Water Resources, State Water Resources Control Board, and the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
More than a third of the money — $8.25 million — will be used to increase outreach efforts to educate Californians on water conservation measures and practices.
The funds requested are part of a comprehensive effort by the Newsom Administration to increase water conservation. Earlier this month, the state launched new video ads to encourage Californians to reduce outdoor watering.
On March 1, the survey of the state’s snowpack showed levels were dropping sharply after robust storms in December. Current snowpack readings are about one-third below average. The Department of Water Resources is analyzing the latest snowpack data and has indicated it may revise its current forecast for State Water Project deliveries in 2022.
With the infusion of additional state budget funds, the Save Our Water campaign is gearing up to reach Californians with water-saving tips via social media and other digital advertising, geo-targeting counties with high water use. The campaign also is securing partnerships with retailers and other organizations to urge Californians to reduce water use in the immediate term and also make permanent changes to landscaping to build resilience in the long term.
Northcoast Assemblyman Jim Wood (D-Santa Rosa) has introduced AB 2451, legislation creating a dedicated Drought Section within the Division of Water Rights responsible for improving drought planning, drought response and climate resiliency statewide, and directing the agency to conduct drought planning for North Coast watersheds.
Existing law establishes the State Water Resources Control Board (the Water Board) and the regional water quality control boards within the Natural Resources Agency. This Board has two divisions, one for Water Rights and one for Water Quality.
“Drought is not an episodic event and has not been for decades,” said Wood. “They are longer, more frequent, more severe and seriously threaten the health of rivers and streams, the wildlife that inhabit them and the ability to provide our North Coast communities with safe and affordable drinking water.”
This new Drought Section will be comprised of dedicated and appropriately resourced staff responsible for developing drought plans in advance of drought conditions. The bill would require the Board, in consultation with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, to adopt principles and guidelines for diversion and use of water in coastal watersheds during times of water shortage no later than March 31, 2023.
While educating the public on water-saving practices are important, as are measures to improve drought planning, there are other considerations that need to be brought to the front of the stove immediately.
Here’s a couple of ideas.
• Local government water utilities and water districts should be required to have permanent water conservation policies in place year-round.
For example, the utility that I manage, the Laytonville County Water District, since the 2012-2017 drought has permanently restricted outdoor watering/irrigation 7 days a week, between the hours of 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. That rule alone has reduced water usage by 12 percent to15 percent during peak usage months (May through October). Outdoor watering/irrigation is allowed seven days per week. However no irrigation/watering is allowed from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
• The state must get serious about immediately increasing water storage capacity.
As discussed in previous columns, California’s dams are showing signs of age. Half are more than 50 years old, and all were designed for the climate of the past. Some improvements can be funded under Proposition 1, a 2014 voter-approved $7.5-billion water bond, but much more needs to be done. For the longer term, California will need to modernize dams where needed and rethink how to operate dams and other flood infrastructure in response to a changing climate.
The thinking now is similar to what folks were thinking in 2014, right in the middle of another historic drought, one of the state’s driest periods in recorded history. The voters in 2014 approved Proposition 1, a $7.5-billion water bond proposal. The vote was a slam-dunk 67 percent to 33 percent margin of victory.
Most voters enthusiastically supported Prop 1 because the politicians set aside $2.7 billion of the $7.5 billion bond for additional water storage in new reservoirs and projects to replenish groundwater basins and aquifers depleted by over-pumping during the drought.
“The modern strategy is to invest more in below ground storage and off stream reservoirs,” Tim Wehling, engineer with the California Department of Water Resources, said. “One of the most exciting off-stream dam projects on the horizon is Sites Reservoir.”
According to Wehling, the strategy of the proposed Sites Reservoir just west of Maxwell in Colusa County would be in wet years, siphon off excess water from the swollen Sacramento River and store it for use in dry years. Since it’s an off-stream reservoir, it wouldn’t block fish navigation like the dams of the 1950s.
Another illustration of meeting the goal of maximizing water storage opportunities is the Los Vaqueros Reservoir. It was built in 1998, paid for by the customers of the Contra Costa Water District. In 2010, the same customers approved an advisory measure to expand the reservoir from 100,000 acre-feet to 160,000 acre-feet, by raising the dam 34 feet.
It should be noted, the project has never been opposed by environmental groups. Part of the reason is that Los Vaqueros is an off-stream reservoir, filled from the Delta, rather than a dam on a free-flowing river.
“They reached out early on to understand our concerns,” said Jonas Minton, senior water advisor to the Planning and Conservation League, a Sacramento environmental group. “They incorporated ways to reduce environmental impacts.”
Like with any problem, you can come up with a thousand reasons for not doing anything.
But you only need one reason to do it.
Doing nothing is the only sure way to fail.
(Jim Shields is the Mendocino County Observer’s editor and publisher, firstname.lastname@example.org, the long-time district manager of the Laytonville County Water District, and is also chairman of the Laytonville Area Municipal Advisory Council. Listen to his radio program “This and That” every Saturday at 12 noon on KPFN 105.1 FM, also streamed live: http://www.kpfn.org.)