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The West’s weather whiplash should not influence long-term water management

FILE – People walk by cracked earth in an area once under the water of Lake Mead at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Jan. 27, 2023, near Boulder City, Nev. California released a plan Tuesday, Jan. 31, detailing how western states reliant on the Colorado River could save more water, a day after it was the only state that didn’t sign a proposal agreed to by six states in the basin. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

There’s a water contradiction in the West with serious long-term water scarcity in low reservoirs and depleting groundwater tables, while California is in the middle of an extremely wet and snowy winter. As water levels in dangerously depleted Lake Mead and Lake Powell drop to record lows, California has experienced one of the wettest winters on record, with a statewide snowpack that’s almost 200 percent of normal for this time of year and a flooding risks from rain and snow events in March. 

In this way California is unlike the other six states currently negotiating a set of reductions to address drought conditions and dropping water levels in the Colorado River Basin. The means for managing water scarcity in the Basin does not always apply to California, where there can be an abundance of water and flooding followed by extreme droughts. 

What is a “normal” year, when California has experienced a whiplash of wet and dry over the last six years? We had wet years in 2022-23, 2018-19 and 2016-17, the second wettest year on record. We experienced dry years in 2021-22 (the third driest on record) in 2020-21 and in 2019-20. 

This extreme weather variability is something we must consider in our long-term water management plans, especially knowing that climate models project even greater extremes of wet and dry periods. Our research projects that future drought and wet periods in the Colorado River basin could be two times larger than that experienced in the historical record. California is also prone to the high variability in wet and dry periods due aridification along with atmospheric rivers in the winter. This all reinforces the need to be prepared with management options that are adaptable to an ever-changing climate. 

Despite the weather whiplash, the amount of available water is only going in one direction — down. Studies have shown that available water has been reduced by as much as 20 percent over the last century. In California, renewed emphasis has been placed on how too much water and how to store excess flows during wet years through groundwater recharge and increasing reservoir storage. 

Managing water through climate change takes smart people working together to develop innovative solutions. For instance, California Department of Water Resources in conjunction with federal agencies is now implementing Forecasted Informed Reservoir Operations (FIRO) to use improved weather forecast to operate reservoirs and potentially store more water. Orange County Water District has one of the state-of-art groundwater replenishment system that is the world’s largest water purification system for indirect potable reuse. Las Vegas and the Southern Nevada Water Authority has led the way in water conservation reducing water use per capita by 48 percent over the past 20 years.  

Effective water management solutions will involve an “all of the above” approach like that proposed in the August 2022 California Water Supply Strategy plan, which includes developing new water supplies, expanding storage capacity, reducing demand, improving water management strategies. 

The water challenges in the West are real and this wild year highlights how we don’t want to overreact due to the conditions of any one wet or dry year. Our government leaders must work together, stay committed to the investments required to enhance infrastructure, and enable innovative solutions to our water future.

Thomas Piechota is professor of engineering and environmental science and policy at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., where he studies the climate impacts on regional water resources and society. 

Tags California storms California water supply Western drought

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