Follow us on: Facebook Twitter YouTube

Commentary: It’s time to re-envision the California water system

Issue Date: September 2, 2020
By Justin Fredrickson
Justin Fredrickson
A project that would raise the height of Shasta Dam is among those being considered to increase water storage and add flexibility to the California water system, which has become inadequate amid rising population, changing weather and changing regulatory priorities.
Photo/U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

Recent years have brought a taste of extreme weather and the destructive power in nature that's always just around the corner here in California.

At the same time, numerous crises have highlighted our many vulnerabilities: drought, new groundwater restrictions, endless stumbling blocks in the way of system repairs and upgrades, regulatory restrictions to protect declining fish, and elusive voluntary agreements in lieu of "unimpaired flow" standards for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta from the state water board that would be ineffective and would cripple regional economies.

And yet, in recent times, we've seen progress on at least a few major water infrastructure projects.

Work is proceeding apace on storage projects partially funded through the Proposition 1 water bond, including Sites Reservoir, expansion of Los Vaqueros and Pacheco reservoirs, a south Sacramento County recycled water and conjunctive use project, and others. Local groundwater sustainability agencies are planning for groundwater recharge projects; fixes are proposed to restore sinking San Joaquin Valley canals; additional south-of-delta wet-period storage is proposed in the form of a San Luis Reservoir expansion and potential Del Puerto Canyon Reservoir—and, last but not least, is a proposed 18.5-foot raise of Shasta Dam to create an average of some 634,000 acre-feet a year.

But all of this is likely not nearly enough.

Recent research looking at projected global temperature increases and large-scale oceanic and atmospheric processes contains alarming news for California water and flood planners. According to this emerging science, intense precipitation and flooding from "pineapple express"-style winter storms could both shift eastwardly landward and intensify by up to 40% by the latter half of the century.

Never mind the big flood years still in recent memory: 2017, 1997, 1995 and 1986. According to the experts, between now and 2060, the chances of a repetition of the legendary Great Flood of 1862—an event formerly classified as a once in 500- to 1,000-year "mega-flood"—are as high as 50%.

Pretty clearly, it would take far less than an 1862-sized flood to overwhelm our existing flood and reservoir system. With the full force of an 1862 or even larger event, think of the 2017 Oroville spillway failure on steroids—just everywhere at once. Add it all up and the proverbial writing on the wall is clear: Our existing infrastructure is woefully unequal to the task.

This is not a matter of floods and failing infrastructure alone. It's a story of alternating drought and flood, of fire, of disappearing snowpack (our state's largest reservoir by far), of strained aquifers, of bursting dams and levees in wet years and empty rivers and reservoirs in dry ones.

This is also not just about water supply, public safety, cities, agriculture or the economy. In fact, fish and rivers in our densely populated, heavily modified state depend as much on reservoir storage and water releases as any other use.

The 20th-century engineers who crisscrossed the state and built the now aging, once world-class system we have inherited had extraordinary vision and foresight. But they didn't foresee the ever-growing environmental and ecosystem demands of recent decades, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, a population of 40 million and counting, or the kind of extreme weather patterns already notably afflicting our state.

The challenge for our generation? We must re-envision, modify and adjust the system, knowing what we know today.

To adapt successfully, our vision and foresight must be every bit as big and bold as that of our forebears. We face challenges just too big for tweaks and half-measures.

We're also going to have to get out of our corners and understand this is a threat to us all. As much as we might like to, we can't just vote each other off the island. Really and truly, to borrow a phrase from Gov. Gavin Newsom, we do need to move beyond the "old binaries" of agricultural vs. urban, the environment vs. the economy and so on.

We can continue to lurch from catastrophe to catastrophe, and from unheeded wakeup call to unheeded wakeup call. We can downgrade our expectations—the bigger the challenge, the smaller the solution. But is this really the way of our fabled Golden State?

Whether we rise to the challenge or not, history and hard physical realities are sure to bring enormous change. Effective fixes will take decades at best. Waiting until it's too late is not wise, and the price of failure is simply too great to calculate. A fundamental shift in thinking is imperative. The time to wake up and step up is now.

(Justin Fredrickson is environmental policy analyst for the California Farm Bureau Federation. He may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

Special Reports



Special Issues

Special Sections