What People Don’t Understand About Drought Could Fill Lake Oroville

In an “it’s about damn time” announcement, Governor Brown FINALLY mandated water conservation measures in California. This is an historic event since it is the first time in the state’s history that a California governor has directed the State Water Resources Control Board to implement mandatory water reductions across the state.

Water level in the Bidwell Marina at Lake Oroville on July 20, 2011

Water level in the Bidwell Marina at Lake Oroville on July 20, 2011

I remember when water restrictions were put in place when I was a kid in the 1970s, but those were regional, perhaps even set by counties, and my northern California family and friends were incensed that southern Californians weren’t forced to reduce their water use. Then, of course, northern California HAD water.

Fast-forward to 2015, and the 4-yr drought has affected the entire state. The measures Brown announced include

replacing 50 million square feet of lawns throughout the state with drought-tolerant landscaping, banning the watering of grass on public street medians, requiring agricultural water users to report their water use to state regulators, and requiring large landscapes such as campuses, golf courses and cemeteries to make significant cuts in water use.

Water level in the Bidwell Marina at Lake Oroville on Aug. 19, 2014 in Oroville, Calif.

Water level in the Bidwell Marina at Lake Oroville on Aug. 19, 2014 in Oroville, Calif.

This mandate follows the March 17th proposal for a $1 billion package of emergency legislation meant to help California survive this crippling drought. Many then were all in a huff about the $660 million earmarked for flood control projects. “We’re in a drought.” they cried. “Why the hell are we spending money on flood control?”

Joshua Viers and Graham Fogg’s post today at California WaterBlog makes clear why flood control is important in the midst of a drought. Flood control projects that include

[s]trategically removing sections of old levees or rebuilding them hundreds or thousands of feet from their original riverbank sites can significantly replenish aquifers during wet years, providing badly needed supplies during droughts.

For years and years and years, California’s local flood control and reclamation districts have focused primarily on keeping century-old levees intact; there have been few if any set-back projects.

Yet, as Viers and Fogg remind us, before all the dams, levees and ripraps, California’s Central Valley was a vast wetland where

the water would percolate into the ground and refill local aquifers. Inundated floodplains also served as nurseries for fish, with abundant insect food and ideal water temperatures for growing bigger and faster – improving their odds of survival in the ocean.

Today, only about 5% of the floodplains are undeveloped, so there’s little opportunity for floodwaters to replenish local aquifers. In fact,

[t]he levees built in the late 1800s and early 1900s to hold back floodwaters from cities and farms now stand as barriers to residents and farmers needing to expand groundwater supplies for drinking water and irrigation.

Now, setback levees are not cheap. Viers and Fogg note that “a 3,400-foot-long structure and associated riparian restoration planned along the lower Feather River in Sutter County is estimated at $20 million.” But not preparing for ways to reclaim flood waters that massive storms caused by climate change will produce is even more costly, especially during a drought.

So, before people cry foul they need to learn a bit about water in California: where it comes from, where it goes, how it’s stored, who uses it and for what purposes and so on.


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