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Commentary: Despite heavy snow, we must seek a new water path

Issue Date: January 5, 2022
By Justin Fredrickson
Justin Fredrickson
This view of the Truckee River shows conditions after December’s winter deluge. Frequent dry spells and declining snowmelt have only deepened California’s water crisis.
Photo/California Department of Water Resources

California is facing an indisputable fact: We need, in a big way, to get busy finding water alternatives to the long-indispensable Sierra Nevada snowpack.

Yes, we've been blessed by recent exceptional snowfall, perhaps a snowy feast after an extended water famine. But year to year, California's frozen reservoir—the mountain snow whose melt feeds farming and quenches the thirst of Californians—is dwindling and increasingly unreliable as the climate changes.

As a result, we now must move water— coming increasingly as rain or early snowmelt—underground.

What I am talking about is no modest undertaking: Rather, it is a massive and fundamental transformation of the whole of our landscape comparable to other massive transformations of our California landscape of the past.

Think of the diking and draining of the vast swamps and grasslands that once characterized our Central Valley floor, or the dredging and damming and levying of the rivers. This time, though, we would reverse some of that process. We would put water back on the land as nature used to, while also continuing to serve the 30 million Californians, millions of acres of farmland, and the world class-sized economy of the state we call home.

At the time of statehood, the rivers and valleys, low-lying swamps, grasslands and estuaries were quite different from today.

Without the huge dams and thousands of miles of levees that make the state we now know even possible, trillions of gallons of water from winter storms—followed by mountain snowmelt in spring and summer—rushed down rivers. Those rivers frequently burst or overflowed their banks, soaking low-lying tule bogs and spreading for weeks or months at a time into vast floodplains.

As this water flowed in rivers and over the alluvial soils of the valley, it percolated, year after year, down into the valley's vast underground aquifers. For eons, this would have kept the aquifers brimming, the whole of the valley alluvium acting like an enormous slow-release sponge.

California's climate is Mediterranean, meaning that the timing of water arrival (winter and spring) was seasonally disconnected from the time when humans most need it (summer). So, we dammed and leveed rivers.

With the advent of turbine pumps starting in the early 20th century, hardworking and enterprising farmers were able to grow the state's agricultural footprint significantly. They turned to wells in dry years when water stored behind dams was in short supply.

In modern times, aquifers in areas that have historically relied the most on groundwater became depleted. As a result, during the depths of the 2014-2015 drought, the landmark Sustainable Groundwater Management Act was passed. It gives farmers and local water agencies 20 years to balance overdrawn South Valley groundwater basins.

However, in 2014-15 and more dramatically in the drought of 2021, we saw a spectacular failure of our formerly reliable and Sierra and Cascade snowpack. This set off new alarm bells about the already enormous groundwater challenges before us.

Then, over the last month, California's fickle rain and snow gods suddenly opened the spigot full bore. But this is likely part of the pendulum of hydrologic variability that appears to be swinging ever more dramatically from one extreme to another.

Our evolving water history has taught us some important things. While California desperately needs new water storage infrastructure and improved conveyance systems, we can no longer just rely on dams, canals or our-now depleted groundwater aquifers.

Despite our recent heavy snow, we've seen the effects of the long-term trend of decreasing snowpacks. Indeed, a recent University of California study predicted a "low-to-no snow future" for the Sierra Nevada, with mountains routinely parched by 2050.

If that is the case, and we can't reliably supply our cities and nourish our farms with slow-melting snow, we are going to need to capture short bursts of rain much more efficiently and move it underground.

We can do this, in part, by simulating groundwater-replenishing natural processes through a managed program that re-routes excess flows from rivers and streams onto land. And there is a prime landscape of low-lying properties that are ideal for percolating winter floodwaters down into our depleted aquifers: It is our agricultural lands throughout the Central Valley.

This replenishing method called Managed Aquifer Recharge aims to help depleted aquifers recover and to preserve our water security. It's a 21st century California water solution that is earning considerable consensus, drawing support across traditional dividing lines of California's water community.

Such smart water management can bring significant benefits for water supplies, including replenishing available drinking water for disadvantaged communities. It can aid in flood control and support fish, wildlife and ecosystems.

It's time for California's water factions to stop fretting, fighting or erecting hurdles to progress. Let's get to work on solutions, starting by focusing on Managed Aquifer Recharge as a natural remedy to begin to address our existential water challenges.

(Justin Fredrickson is the California Farm Bureau's water and environmental policy analyst. He may be contacted at jfredrickson@cfbf.com.)

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




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