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How California is preparing for a future full of extreme weather

BY   March 16, 2017 at 5:00 PM EDT
Water is released from the Lake Oroville Dam after an evacuation was ordered for communities downstream from the dam in Oroville, California, U.S., February 14, 2017. Photo by Jim Urquhart/REUTERS

Water is released from the Lake Oroville Dam after an evacuation was ordered for communities downstream from the dam in Oroville, California, U.S., February 14, 2017. Photo by Jim Urquhart/REUTERS

Two straight months of heavy rainfall have effectively ended five straight years of drought in California. But with parts of the state reporting more than 100 inches of precipitation since last fall, the rain activity has also caused floods, road closures, infrastructure damage and evacuations in many areas.

As a result of the unpredictable nature of California’s climate, state officials have begun to prepare for what they expect to be continued extreme weather conditions. The Climate Prediction Center predicts lingering drought conditions will persist in parts of Southern California through June even after what it called a “phenomenal wet season.” State officials also expect variable weather patterns to continue in the future, which could extend droughts, increase flood risks and threaten the sustainability of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

In an effort to address the immediate effects of the storms, Gov. Brown announced last month that the state would invest $437 million in flood control and emergency response actions.

“These recent storms have had a real impact,” California Gov. Jerry Brown told CNN. “We’ve got dam spillways eroding, we’ve got roads crumbling, we have our aging infrastructure that’s maxed out.”


Fire engine tumbles off the side of rain-induced sinkhole in San Bernardino County on February 17, 2017. No one was seriously injured.

About $387 million of the money would fund high-priority flood prevention projects in the Central Valley, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and other areas at risk of floods, the governor said. The money would come from the legislature and a Proposition 1 appropriation, which authorizes $7.5 billion in general obligation bonds to projects including water supply infrastructure. Brown’s advisers told the LA Times he wanted to spend the money in two years, instead of over the five-year period originally planned.

The remaining $50 million would come from the general fund and pay for more immediate needs, such as equipment for flood response.

Brown also proposed legislation to require emergency action plans for all dams the state regulates, and directed the California Natural resources Agency to conduct more detailed evaluations of dam structures.

Additionally, the state has invested in long-term projects in an effort to better respond to storms.

In 2014, the Brown administration released the California Water Action Plan, a blueprint that spells out several actions to help the state manage floods, droughts and water conservation all around.

Part of the action plan, which was updated in 2016, includes flood preparedness measures designed to better coordinate flood response operations. For instance, the plan directs state and federal agencies to develop and implement a common protocol that all agencies operating in the Delta can use to respond to emergencies. It also seeks to prioritize funding to reduce flood risk and improve access to emergency funds.

People stand by a flooded street near William Street Park after heavy rains overflowed nearby Coyote Creek in San Jose, California. Photo by Stephen Lam/Reuters

People stand by a flooded street near William Street Park after heavy rains overflowed nearby Coyote Creek in San Jose, California. Photo by Stephen Lam/Reuters

According to a January progress report, the state has already implemented several of those measures in recent months. In the Sacramento area, it is improving levees on the American River and completing a comprehensive flood safety plan at Folsom Lake. This year, it expects to adopt a plan to better protect the Central Valley from floodwaters.

Despite those actions, California still has $50 billion in unmet flood management needs. To address those issues, the Brown administration said it will work with the state legislature to find solutions.

Brown also said he would not officially declare an end to the drought until the end of the rain season, but he expects to be able to lift his emergency order in the coming months.

On the other hand, California officials are warning the state is still at risk of extreme dry conditions in the future. They’re taking precautions for those scenarios, too.

Some measures include water conservation regulations that require local water districts to prove they have a enough water stored to withstand three more years of drought. The “stress test” regulations were implemented in May 2016 and replaced prior water conservation standards, which required a statewide reduction of 25 percent from urban water suppliers.

A boat paddle is shown on the bottom of the nearly dry Almaden Reservoir near San Jose, California January 21, 2014. Photo by Robert Galbraith/Reuters

A boat paddle is shown on the bottom of the nearly dry Almaden Reservoir near San Jose, California January 21, 2014. Photo by Robert Galbraith/Reuters

The regulations also prohibit wasteful practices, such as watering lawns after it rains, hosing off sidewalks and driveways or over-watering landscaping. State Water Resources Control Board Chair Felicia Marcus said districts are required to document such water conservation efforts. If a district challenges some of the regulations, officials can investigate those cases.

Last month, the State Water Resources Control Board decided to extend the regulations for another 270 days. However, the board said it could review or revise the regulations in May, when the rainy season ends.

Marcus said extending the regulations was common sense.

“Our whole approach on this has been to be safe rather than sorry and to prepare for the worst because you don’t want to be wrong the other way,” Marcus told NewsHour. “It makes sense to assess where we are at the conclusion of the rainy season. And then, you know, then you have a very complete picture of where you are and what you may need to do.”

The board reported the state has saved about 2.43 million acre-feet of water since June 2015. That’s enough to supply more than 12 million people — nearly one-third of the state’s population — for one year.

Despite these numbers, Marcus said the five-year drought has underscored the need for long-term improvements to drought preparedness and water sustainability.

Additional water conservation methods have been implemented to prepare for future dry seasons. According to the progress report of the California Water Action Plan, the state water board has financed more than $430 million in water recycling construction projects and issued an order designed to streamline the permitting of recycled water use. In August, the Department of Water Resources also awarded $8.7 million in grants to eight desalination projects.

“I’ve called [this drought] the Godzilla of all wakeup droughts,” she said, urging the state to continue to save water. “There’s no time like the present to prepare.”

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