PD Editorial: California needs to save more of its rainwater

The amount of rain that has fallen on California this winter is prodigious - 18 trillion gallons, enough water to fill 27 million Olympic swimming pools, in February alone.

So, no drought worries for 2019.

Unfortunately, the Golden State hasn't applied its prudent financial strategy - stashing billions of dollars in a rainy day fund for a recession that's bound to come - to preparing for the next prolonged dry spell. And, sure as the sun sets in the west, there will be another drought.

Santa Rosa has recorded 26.86 inches of precipitation since Oct. 1, the start of the rainfall year. That's about 1.5 inches above average for late February, and it's more than double the total for this date a year ago.

The all-important Sierra snowpack is 41 percent above average for this time of year, according to the state Department of Water Resources. And there could be considerably more rain and snow to come with the recent arrival of El Niño, which warms water temperatures in the Pacific and sometimes fuels major storm systems.

Local reservoirs also are in good shape, with the water supply pools topping 100 percent at Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino.

A contributing factor is the replacement of a fixed regimen of releases with new weather- and flood-forecasting tools that allow the Army Corps of Engineers to store an additional 11,650 acre-feet of water behind Coyote Dam, which creates Lake Mendocino on the upper Russian River.

Reservoirs elsewhere in California also are at or near capacity. Yet much of the winter's rainfall still races down rivers and into the ocean.

“It's the fault of 20th century thinking about water, which was to get rid of stormwater; get rid of wastewater, treat it as a liability,” Peter Gleick, president emeritus of the Pacific Institute, told the Los Angeles Times. “That's the infrastructure we built. We channeled our rivers, and we lined them with concrete so we could get rid of water. Now we know that's a valuable resource.”

With stepped-up stormwater capture programs, the Pacific Institute said in a 2014 study, Southern California and the Bay Area could boost the state's water supply by 420,000 acre-feet annually. That's enough water to meet the needs of 300,000-400,000 people.

The management system at Lake Mendocino is an example of 21st century thinking - increasing water storage without a huge added expense. So is Gov. Gavin Newsom's decision to scale back the twin tunnels water diversion project that was the cornerstone of Jerry Brown's water plans.

Newsom highlighted other cost-effective options in his recent State of the State speech, including expanded floodplains, recycling and groundwater recharge. “We need a portfolio approach to building water infrastructure and meeting long-term demand,” he said.

Yet the state is pursuing proposals like the Sites Reservoir in Colusa County and the Temperance Flat Dam east of Fresno that will cost billions with limited returns. The Trump administration, meanwhile, wants to raise Shasta Dam, which is prohibited by the state's wild-and-scenic rivers law.

Smaller, less-expensive projects, starting with watershed restoration, recycling and recharging aquifers, could be finished faster and would deliver more bang for the buck - allowing the state to save some storm runoff for the next drought.

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