The PPIC Water Policy Center’s senior fellow (and former director) Ellen Hanak summed up the situation nicely at our annual fall conference on November 14: “If you think our weather’s getting crazier, the data agree with you.” While the state’s average precipitation hasn’t changed, she said, volatility has increased dramatically.
Last winter’s swing from dry to wet conditions brought relief to the parched state. But, Hanak said, whiplash years also allow California to “test our systems and see how we’re doing.” Despite some real wins last winter—including full reservoirs and a dramatic increase in groundwater recharge—the wet season highlighted the ways in which the state isn’t fully ready to manage deluge conditions.
The question is how to make that happen. In the first panel, moderated by senior fellow Jeff Mount, Central Valley Flood Protection Board president Jane Dolan praised the Department of Water Resources’ (DWR) flood management efforts, though she cautioned that flood preparation isn’t a one-and-done kind of thing. Ongoing efforts are needed to prevent the loss of life and homes, because “you can never entirely protect people from floods.”
The US Army Corps of Engineers is working hard to prevent such losses, said the Corps’ Tessa Beach. She explained how the Corps is now putting economic, environmental, and social benefits on an equal footing when it evaluates a project. This has real-world implications, particularly for low-income communities of color, which are often disproportionately impacted by flooding.
These communities, said Nahal Ipakchi of Kearns & West, have been systematically excluded from the state’s planning processes for decades. While some barriers are easy to overcome, others—such as a lack of trust and a reluctance to engage—are more challenging to address. “It’s not the most welcoming dynamic,” she said, and transforming it will take sustained effort.
Ali Forsythe of Sites Authority described how the proposed Sites Reservoir would be built in the middle of a disadvantaged community and the steps they’re taking to mitigate impacts. The reservoir will not only bolster water supply but also provide flood benefits to communities downstream, she said.
The second panel, moderated by PPIC’s Caity Peterson, examined how to use wet years to boost California’s water supply. Preparation, said Daniel Mountjoy of Sustainable Conservation, is paramount: “One of the key lessons from this year was that those who’d thought about it since 2017 and 2019—the last high flows—were able to capture significantly more water for recharge than they’d ever done before.”
But long-term thinking is key, said Lance Ekhart of San Gorgonio Pass Water Agency. “Regulatory uncertainty slows the whole thing down,” scuttling many worthy projects, including medium-sized projects that utilize natural infrastructure. These are low-hanging fruit, he said, but local boards may need regional, state, or federal leadership to move forward. Monterey County Water Resources Agency’s general manager Ara Azhderian agreed, saying that medium-sized projects add up: “If you only hit singles in a ballgame, you’re going to win eventually.”
Laurel Firestone of the State Water Board concurred that time is of the essence. “Start yesterday,” she said, to chuckles. She said that collaboration and partnership across the administration made a huge difference this year. “DWR and the Bureau of Reclamation took major leads in developing applications and working with landowners.” She’s hoping to see longer-term permits and more applications and projects to make these a permanent part of the state’s water supply portfolio.
The third panel, moderated by center director Letitia Grenier, started with a surprise. Grenier asked Nancy Vogel, California Natural Resource Agency’s deputy secretary of water, about the state’s plan for water. Vogel responded by quoting the PPIC Water Policy Center’s recent brief: “Integrating wet- and dry-year management will require a multi-decade infrastructure investment program that focuses on conveying water to recharge sites, improving flood defenses, and integrating nature-based solutions where appropriate.” Then she sat back and said, “That’s it. That’s the state’s plan.”
Getting there, she said, is going to take time. Progress in California water policy moves incrementally, but “occasionally there are big lurches and I think we just had a big lurch this past winter.” She described seeing “a lot of creativity and hustle” as the weather flipped from dry to wet and “hard-working folks” at DWR, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the State Water Board pushed to maximize recharge.
People are ready to do more, agreed the State Water Contractor’s general manager Jen Pierre. She praised Kern County Water Agencies, which put over 1 million acre-feet in the ground last winter. “That’s more than a full Folsom Lake,” said Pierre. But, she said, the state needs to be more nimble in its planning. “Even in dry years, we have big storms and can move water and put it away,” she said. “But we need to be more responsive.”
Kaylee Allen of the US Fish and Wildlife Service stressed that there are exciting efforts to utilize floodplains more heavily, particularly in the Sacramento Valley. “Can floodplains support fins and feathers? There are many refuges created for migratory waterfowl, but can these lands do more while staying true to their original purpose?”
In the end, most of the panelists agreed that multi-benefit projects—and moving more quickly—would help the state better manage its wet years.
We invite you to watch the videos from this event: