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PD Editorial: For California, drought is the new normal

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

Rain came early last fall, but whatever hope blossomed for a better than normal — or even average — year is gone. There is no March miracle in the forecast, and summers are dry in California, so mandatory water conservation isn’t going away any time soon.

“We had a great start to the beginning of the wet season … and we have basically flatlined since then,” Jeanine Jones of the California Department of Water Resources said during a virtual town hall meeting on Thursday that Sonoma Water billed as “a huge reality check.”

This will be a third straight drought year for California. Take a step back and the grim situation looks even worse: A study published last month in the journal Nature Climate Change determined that the past two decades rank as the driest period in at least 1,200 years for the American West. The researchers, climate scientists from UCLA and other institutions, warned that dry conditions could persist for years.

North Coast residents reduced water used by more than 20% last year, outpacing the rest of the state. But there are limits to how far people can cut back. You can only skip so many showers and replace so many thirsty appliances, and lush green lawns are getting almost as scarce as gas-guzzling Hummers.

California must rethink water delivery systems that were designed for a 20th century climate. Winter storms are increasingly sporadic, and rising global temperatures will compound the effects of droughts — increasing evaporation, drying out soil and reducing flows in rivers and streams.

Here on the North Coast, better weather forecasting tools have allowed increased winter storage in Lake Mendocino in recent years, and water managers hope to replicate that success at Lake Sonoma.

There are additional opportunities for large-scale savings, starting with recycling and stormwater capture.

Santa Rosa already is a regional recycling leader, providing more than 5 billion gallons of treated wastewater annually for irrigation and to recharge steam fields at The Geysers that generate clean, renewable energy. Homes in one Windsor subdivision are double piped to use recycled water for outdoor watering.

Southern California has taken recycling a step further: turning wastewater into drinking water. Almost half of Orange County’s drinking water is recycled, the Los Angeles Times reported, and the mammoth Metropolitan Water District, which supplies water to 19 million people, hopes to build its own wastewater-to-drinking water system.

Sonoma Water, which provides water for about 600,000 residents in Sonoma and Marin counties, is focused on capturing stormwater.

That may seem counterintuitive given warnings about mega-droughts, but Sonoma County experiences “whiplash weather,” with droughts broken by floods, followed by more dry spells. The most recent Russian River flood was in 2019, and even the driest years have periods with high flows.

The water agency plans to capture some of that water and store it underground. Sonoma Water General Manager Grant Davis likened it to “a bank account, where you can recharge the aquifers and hold that water in the wet times and have it available for drought conditions and dry times.”

Two recharge wells are in the works; they will be available this summer to augment local water supplies and soon afterward to pump water back into the ground.

At $6.9 million, the wells are more cost-effective than building dams or surface reservoirs that cost billions and create environmental problems.

Water managers say they have plans to provide for Sonoma County’s present and future needs. But no can say when the rains will return — or when the next drought will begin. For California, and the North Coast, that may be the new normal.

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Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

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