September 1, 2015

On the Coming of El Niño

It’s music to many desperate ears:  El Niño is coming!

Meteorologists are almost uniformly predicting a major El Niño event this coming winter.  El Niño refers to a weather phenomenon that features warming waters in the tropical Pacific combined with a shift in prevailing winds that can send a steady stream of warm and wet storms into California in winter and spring.  The 1997-98 water year was an El Niño year, resulting in an onslaught of massive rain storms that overwhelmed the state’s water infrastructure, unleashing floods and mudslides.

For drought-weary farmers, the thought of having to cope with flood waters is more exciting than frightening.  But we shouldn’t get too excited yet:  Scientists caution that not every El Niño event produces major rains.  Meteorologist Bob Henson recently wrote that while El Niño “shifts the odds,” it “doesn’t guarantee the roll of the meteorological dice in any particular winter.”  Nor would a one-year El Niño soaker be enough to end the drought, so great is our water deficit.

Another cautionary note has to do with El Niño’s aim.  Experts worry that El Niño will channel massive storms into Southern California but leave Northern California dry.  Southern California’s limited storage reservoirs would be quickly overwhelmed while the state’s major reservoirs in the north would miss out.

Still, what may be in store for California is an historic El Niño winter that produces massive rain amounts, little snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains (the state’s “biggest reservoir”), and the opportunity to refill reservoirs north and south, if we allow the system to work better.

This brings me to my first call to action:  The federal and state agencies that have their hands on California’s system of reservoirs, aqueducts and pumping facilities must be prepared to act on the opportunity.  During this drought, the Endangered Species Act limitations on the Delta pumping facilities have cost farms and cities hundreds of thousands of acre feet of water that could have been stored in San Luis Reservoir near Los Banos.  The precious gift of brief storm runoff should have been accepted, but too much of that water was directed out to sea.

I know it is heresy to call for suspension of the Endangered Species Act, even for a few days, but this drought is a national emergency.  In national emergencies, laws and regulations are suspended in order to protect human life and the health of our economy.  In this national emergency, massive flood waters produced by El Niño storms should not be viewed solely as a flooding threat but also as water supply relief.  The state and federal project pumps in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta should be operated not at their ESA-limits during El Niño flooding, but at their design limits.  Capture as much flood water as possible during a flood, then return the pumps to ESA-limits when flood waters recede.  San Luis Reservoir—the storage facility for water pumped by the state and federal projects—is the largest off-stream reservoir in the nation, with more than 2,000,000 acre feet of capacity.  It is now holding just 25 percent of its capacity.  The Delta pumps were designed to move up to 30,000 acre feet per day to San Luis; for nearly a month during storm runoff events last December and January, even though far more water was flowing into the Delta than the pumps could have captured at their design capacity, they weren’t even operated at their ESA-permitted capacity of 22,000 acre feet per day for more than a day or two.  That’s crazy.

Here’s another bit of political incorrectness:  The horribly complicated and stifling red-tape that prevents the state from building exhaustively-studied new dams and reservoirs should be cut and the projects should be expedited.  When the Northridge earthquake struck Southern California in 1994 and major freeways collapsed, the state declared an emergency, waived the usual environmental red tape and got the freeways rebuilt so traffic could flow and Southern California’s economy could recover.  The sense of urgency was so great that the badly-damaged Santa Monica freeway was rebuilt in less than three months.  The Governor has declared a drought emergency, but we haven’t seen the same sense of urgency extended to our water infrastructure.  With climate change creating warmer winters with less snow and briefer but more intense rain events, additional storage is a must, both for water supply and flood protection.  We should expedite the raising of Shasta Dam as well as the construction of Sites and Temperance Flat reservoirs.  They have been studied to death, they are feasible and needed, and we have wasted too much time.

So it is perfectly appropriate to hope that El Niño comes to California this winter, and that his aim is good.  But if federal and state officials in control of our existing water infrastructure fail to operate it opportunistically and build new infrastructure to meet the emergency that confronts us, California will suffer the harm that El Niño can bring without reaping any of its benefits.