Calif.’s drought cure starts with adapting to changing circumstances

Gov. Gavin Newsom, and state and Federal water officials are calling for a temporary shift to save and store water after intense storms. It’s time for California’s Water Board to heed the call, writes Willam Bourdeau.

Following a downbeat 2022, with sparse rainfall, soaring demand for water, and a need to continue to put food on the nation’s table, California kicked off 2023 blessed with an abundance of precipitation.

For the past six weeks, however, that blessing, to some extent, has been squandered.


The rules governing the flow of water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta forced millions of acre feet of water – enough to meet the water needs of Los Angeles multiple times over –  to be flushed out to the Pacific Ocean to meet rigid, calendar-based environmental standards.

Developing guidelines to regulate the flow of water through the Delta is by no means easy. But under current rules, much of the Delta outflow – or water meant to be sent to the ocean rather than pumped south – is dictated by the prior month’s outflow, even after such a dramatic flush has already occurred.

A month ago, California was in the midst of some of its most unheralded winter storms, dousing virtually the entire state and delivering piles of snow in the Sierra.

Now, precipitation has flat-lined, but California regulators are still expected to shuttle more water out to the ocean rather than utilize it for under-resourced communities like the Valley.

In late 2021, California underwent a similar progression. Storms zoomed across California in late December, delivering considerable water. Environmental rules required that that increase of water be flushed out to preserve punitive, environmental standards.

Following that initial wave of storms, not a single drop of rain fell on California in 2022.

This year, California’s top leaders are recognizing that we cannot afford to waste resources.

Last Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order imploring California’s State Water Resources Control Board temporarily modify the stringent rules regarding the outflow of Delta water to the ocean and harness these increased resources – both through current flows and upcoming snowmelt runoff – to preserve resources for farms and families.

His executive order was joined by a similar call from California’s Department of Water Resources and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the two agencies tasked with managing the Delta and pumping water to farmers and communities south of the Delta.

Combined, the actions by Gov. Newsom and the two water agencies represents a refreshing embrace of common sense – that scores of water resources should be utilized to balance the needs of the people and the environment rather than be so one-sided as to leave our state high and dry.

This push to reassess the flow of water, particularly in the wake of January’s singular, intense storms, is critical to ensuring we not only deliver on California’s current water needs, but recharge the aquifer, and store water for future use in drier years.

Detractors of this proposal sadly believe in rigid adherence to environmental rules, no matter the detriment to millions of Californians and the food supply chain reliant on the Delta’s water resources.

But California cannot afford to see a major boon of resources washed away on unscientific folly while drought conditions remain in flux.

It is my sincere hope that the State Water Board heeds this call from our water managers and Gov. Newsom and embraces this temporary shift to help strengthen our water resiliency by properly utilizing the increase in flow to ease drought impacts and strengthen groundwater recharge.

Our state is counting on it.

The views published reflect only those of the author and not any affiliated entity or organization.

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