California prepares for El Niño winter after a year of extreme heat and floods | Courthouse News Service
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California prepares for El Niño winter after a year of extreme heat and floods

The state water department's director said her highest priority is for the federal government to help improve California's ability to make long-term forecasts and prepare for extreme weather conditions.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — After a year of unprecedented heat and flooding, experts are cautiously hopeful for California’s new water year with the threat of the historically unruly El Niño looming. 

With the start of the new water year this week, state officials say there is plenty to celebrate. State climatologist Michael Anderson said in a Tuesday briefing that between October 2022 to March of this year, the state got 153% of normal rainfall, making it the sixth wettest water year on record. 

The San Joaquin Valley water region, which stretches from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to the Tulare Lake valley bed, saw its wettest year ever at 199% of normal rainfall. The state got half of a normal water year’s precipitation between December to March, leading to historic snowmelt starting in April. 

Ted Craddock, deputy director of the State Water Project, said 30 reservoirs serving 27 million people are doing better than ever. By the end of the spring snowmelt, the project’s critical Lake Oroville saw the greatest increase in storage within six months in its history. It’s currently at 136% of the historical average, compared to being at 64% of average at the same time in 2022. 

Ernest Conant, regional director for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said that this year was the first since 2017 that the bureau provided 100% of all promised water distributions, with more to spare.

However, all of that much-needed water came at a high cost. 

Many areas of the state faced flooding emergencies, including Monterey County’s unincorporated community of Pajaro and many parts of the Tulare Lake bed in the southern Central Valley. Conant said subsidence in the Kern Canal in the Central Valley — due to overpumping during drought — severely reduced how much underground aquifers were recharged in that region this year. 

A paved road is seen underwater off Tule River, in Tulare County, Calif. (Tricia Stever Blattler via Courthouse News)

Paul Gosselin, deputy director of California's Sustainable Groundwater Management department, said the state was in the middle of building or repairing multiple projects to help capture and store water last year when it seemed like another year of drought was imminent. 

“A lot of progress was being made, and then the storms came,” he said. 

Gosselin said Governor Gavin Newsom's executive order last spring — letting people without water rights to divert floodwater away from communities, off to basins or fallowed land — allowed for “out of the box thinking," The state alongside local agencies safely diverted nearly 400,000 acre feet of potential flood water.

However, the state Water Resources Control Board's Division of Water Rights deputy director, Erik Ekdahl, said it will take several months to know how much water went into the underground aquifers as a result of the state's approval of 1.2 million acre feet of water for diversion and storage.

Looking ahead, Anderson said the shift to El Niño — a naturally occurring weather phenomenon that can last several years and is associated with heat and unpredictable weather — presents a slightly increased potential for another wet winter. But he said it is difficult to predict just how much precipitation that could mean. 

 “A lot of pieces are in play for extremes we haven’t seen in decades,” Anderson said. 

Gary Lippner, Flood Management and Dam Safety deputy director, said the state is training multiple counties on flood readiness and has already allocated millions for levee repairs in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys. 

He said California's coastal communities are particularly vulnerable.

“There is a lot of flood risk throughout the state, and for a lot of the counties, emergencies start at the local level,” Lippner said. “We just do not have extensive flood systems on the coast.”

The state is unable to predict storms arriving within more than one or two weeks, despite improvements in airborne data gathering alongside global forecast models, Anderson said. 

California Department of Water Resources chief Karla Nemeth said that securing federal support to improve long-term forecasting is “probably the most important thing we can be doing” to improve the state’s ability to respond to extreme weather events. 

Nemeth said the state learned valuable lessons about improving water management during the extraordinary water year. 

“We’ve always had extremes in California, but the suddenness of the shift in very extreme dry to very extreme wet is something we need additional research on to understand how changes in the climate may have played a factor, or not,” she said. 

While the state experienced a slower, more manageable snowmelt this year, Nemeth said flooding that filled the long-dry Tulare Lake showed how important robust regional flood preparation is in rural communities. 

“You can’t build your way out of any flooding,” she said. “We all have a tendency to say, well we survived that. But there are always ways Mother Nature can throw us a curveball.”

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Categories / Environment, Regional, Weather

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