Unpacking the California water crisis today

Winter technically ended a little over a month ago. But our beloved rain persists, and flowers have been blooming in California for months. A record wet season and rising temperatures grant us the privilege of enjoying an ambiguously early spring. Meanwhile, persistent global drought conditions restrict farmers around the world from sufficient crop production and millions of people from rightful access to clean, adequate water sources.

While there is warranted confusion regarding California’s recent weather patterns, danger lies within the rhetoric of drought relief. We undoubtedly received an exceptional amount of rainfall this winter; most major surface water reservoirs are near or above the historical average level, and the emergency spillway at one of those reservoirs is damaged. Not to mention, it prompted a mass evacuation of surrounding, vulnerable communities. These saturated circumstances, however, are not necessarily indicative of our dear drought’s goodbye.

Perhaps it is an unusual cause for concern that after several years of minimal precipitation, we were hit with storms of this magnitude. And what about the groundwater aquifers, from which we (over)extract during periods of drought? These reservoirs recover much more slowly than surface water reservoirs, a hydrologic process that imposes resource limitations of which Californians historically have not been aware. Should we begin rethinking our governing relationship with water in California?

California’s watershed is unique to the United States. The majority of precipitation occurs in the winter, but it is most needed in the dryer, warmer seasons, so it must be stored and irrigated for later use. This is known as incongruence of time.

Similarly, most precipitation occurs in northern regions in the form of rainfall and in the Sierra Nevada mountains as snow, neither of which are densely inhabited by humans, so water must be dammed and conveyed to places it will be used. This is known as incongruence of space. And with warming temperatures, more precipitation is falling in the form of rain and less in the form of snow. Snowpack is also melting earlier in the year. These conditions threaten the aging infrastructure of our dams; we all know what can happen when a reservoir exceeds capacity.

Climate change aside, let us dive into some historical factors that led us to and have perpetuated our water crisis. There were two distinct economic opportunities for “settlers” arriving in California in the 1800s: gold and agriculture. Both eventually were detrimental to the natural landscape and water reservoirs.

Hydraulic mining degraded what is now the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which is held intact and protected from saltwater infiltration by literal piles of dirt – also known as levees. This is a disaster waiting to happen, considering California’s next major earthquake could happen tomorrow.

The Central Valley’s broad plains initially brought people further south for agricultural purposes, and the attractive beaches and temperate climate brought even more people down to Southern California. Suddenly, there was an expanding metropolis in a region with not enough water to support the incoming population.

Groundwater wells, though initially deemed a holy infinite resource in the “Cornucopia of the World,” did not suffice. After years of consequential land subsidence in the Central Valley’s farms, fields and orchards, we were humbly enlightened of our groundwater aquifers’ finite capacity to serve us.

We were forced to look elsewhere. The California aqueduct now diverts water from rainfall-rich regions in the northern half of the state and the delta, through the valley, and provides water for agricultural and urban use. Additionally, the Los Angeles Aqueduct conveys water from the Owen’s River in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains for urban use in Los Angeles County. Today, we await approval of more diversion methods from northern water sources.

California requires more effective methods for storing, using and reusing water, the one resource essential for all terrestrial life. Since groundwater extraction and mass-water diversion tactics primarily contributed to our water crisis, perhaps water allocation requires more resourcefulness. And as California inevitably expands, the demand to alter such methods will only increase. Although these unusual storms have seemingly resolved our problems, the drought-prone climate will soon prevail and our impending water resource challenges will only exacerbate if we blindly proceed to business as usual.

Calla Dorais is a fourth-year student studying conservation and resources studies and city and regional planning.