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California’s precipitation paradox

Accumulated snow surrounds a fire danger sign in El Dorado County on March 1, 2023 .
Andrew Innerarity
California Department of Water Resources
Accumulated snow surrounds a fire danger sign in El Dorado County on March 1, 2023 .

California has two seemingly contradictory and potentially devastating problems:
  1. We have more water than we know what to do with — and more is on the way.
  2. We still don’t have nearly enough.

More atmospheric rivers are due to wash over us this weekend. These are the same kind of state-spanning bands of wet air responsible for dropping 32 trillion gallons of water on the state in January.

But in a bit of irony that Alanis Morissette might appreciate, the coming rain could actually complicate things in drought-plagued California by melting its snowpack too early.

This latest plume is now forecast to hit the northern and central regions of the state late Thursday. And unlike some prior storms, this one — a subtropical “Pineapple Express” — is expected to be fairly warm.

That’s good news for those of us still recovering from our astronomically higher January natural gas bills, sent skyward in part by the unusually cold weather.

But it could be bad news for those counting on California’s nearly unprecedented Sierra snowpack — or for those living downstream.

There could be even more rain in California’s long-term forecast. New estimates from the World Meteorological Organization put good odds on the Pacific Ocean breaking from its three-year La Niña pattern and ushering the return of El Niño. In California, that generally means more rain and accompanying landslides, floods and coastal erosion.

Shored up? If coastal erosion in the face of rising seas is a public policy concern, you wouldn’t know it from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s draft budget. As CalMatters’ environment reporter Julie Cart explains, the governor proposes to cut funding for coastal resilience projects by 43% in the face of a more-than-$20 billion deficit.

For all the talk of rain and flood, Californians are still battling over who has claim to the water flowing through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Environmental groups on Monday asked state water regulators to rescind theircontroversial decision to weaken Delta flow rules to increase storage in California’s reservoirs.

The petition to the State Water Resources Control Board was submitted by 10 environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Save California Salmon and San Francisco Baykeeper.

The controversy centers on last month’s decision to waive basic flow standards for the Delta. The groups in their petition said the waiver would cause “irreparable environmental harm and loss of fish,” including Chinook salmon and tiny Delta smelt.

  • The petition: The order is “arbitrary and capricious, contrary to law, and is not supported by substantial evidence.”

What’s at stake?

Water that’s delivered to growers in the Central Valley and to cities, mostly in Southern California. Newsom and the water agencies have been under pressure to capture more water during storms instead of letting it flow into the ocean via San Francisco Bay. Growers and many Central Valley elected officials call this “wasted water.” But the state’s rules require a certain amount of water to flow into the bay to assist fish, such as migrating salmon.

Water agency officials told CalMatters they are reviewing the petition, as well as other comments and current conditions, to see if any changes are warranted.

The water board’s executive director, Eileen Sobeck, has acknowledged the waiver could harm threatened and endangered species of fish, but said the potential for a dry winter and spring, and the importance of boosting reservoir storage, justified the move. Those concerns could be water under the bridge as another powerful storm system threatens to dump so much water that reservoirs, which were at barely a quarter of their capacity in November, fill.

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.