Trading Droughts for Floods in the West

The West has been hit by an absolute dumping of rain and snow over the past two-ish weeks, and many parts of California are flooded. Since December 31, twelve people have died in the state from the flooding, according to California Governor Gavin Newsom. More rain is predicted for the rest of this week, yet some reservoirs have already reached peak capacity, leaving the water only one place to go: downstream.

Predictably, the media has focused on flooding in Sacramento and San Francisco – cities that have been severely affected, of course – but many rural areas are struggling as well. 

Highways in remote northern California have been blocked by mudslides, downed trees and floodwaters. This has left people stranded in their homes, many without power. In rural eastern California, communities near old wildfire burns were prepared to evacuate last week in the event of debris flows through fire-scarred terrain. Many rural and urban communities near burn scars remain on high alert. And high up in the Sierras, tens of feet of snow have been reported, making summits impassible. 

The West’s current downpour is caused by atmospheric rivers, which are huge streams of moisture originating in the tropics that are picked up by the jet stream (a fast flowing air current that moves from west to east around the globe). Multiple atmospheric rivers have situated themselves directly on top of California since late-December.

The jet stream through which these rivers travel is amplified by El Niño and La Niña cycles, which are two kinds of air circulation patterns that start in the Pacific Ocean and bring warm and dry or wet and cool weather conditions to different parts of North America, according to the National Weather Service. 

Right now, the Pacific Ocean is in a La Niña cycle, so the north and northwest parts of the United States are wetter and cooler. Oddly enough, the southwestern part of the United States is bucking the pattern it usually follows in a La Niña cycle by being wetter and cooler instead of warmer and drier. 

As heavy precipitation continues, some people are logically searching for a bright side: all of this rain has got to be good for the West’s drought conditions, right? 

Wrong! Sort of. The honest answer is: it’s complicated.

Atmospheric rivers and La Niña years are normal; a megadrought that’s plagued the West for over two decades is not. The western and southwestern parts of the United States have been gripped by a megadrought of scales not seen since the late-1500s, but this time it’s worse because of human-caused climate change, according to research from the science publication Nature Climate Change. 

The positive outlook on California’s historic floods is that the state is getting moisture it desperately needs, and while some small reservoirs have already reached capacity, others are bulking up with water that could help Californians get through the year. Several reservoirs are already higher than their historic averages at this time of year, according to data from the California Department of Water Resources. 

The problem, however, is that because of the aforementioned megadrought, ecosystems that normally are better equipped to absorb large amounts of water have been weakened, according to the California Department of Water Resources. Tree roots that would be able to intake more water simply can’t because of the years of drought they’ve endured, leaving soils that become quickly saturated. Over-saturated soil means water has nowhere to go, causing floods.

Another issue is that while the high Sierras have received enormous amounts of snow this January (Sierra snowpack provides California a significant portion of its water supply), the climate is warming and the snowpack is melting earlier than it used to. Without those water reserves held in snowpack later into the year, it doesn’t matter how much snow eastern California and western Nevada gets if it all melts away by June.

Extreme precipitation is no-good when it happens to a drought-stricken area. Even worse is when it happens to an area with poor stormwater infrastructure, which is the reality for many parts of California. Much of the state’s drainage infrastructure was built over three decades ago, according to reporting from the Washington Post, and cannot handle the current state of flooding amid a megadrought. 

Stormwater infrastructure updates need to be made as the state adapts to a changing climate, and rural areas have to be considered to ensure everyone – not just those in big cities – are protected the next time California floods.

One final point to remember is if this January rain is the last major precipitation California sees this year, this will end up being just another average rainfall year (in December of 2021, northern California and the Sierras got a huge amount of rain, and then January, February, and March of 2022 were the driest recorded in over 100 years). 

We’re not out of the woods yet in the dry, dry West.

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One More Thing: The Opposite of Flooding

As my Daily Yonder colleagues know, I have become increasingly worried about the state of the Great Salt Lake, which is predicted to dry up completely within five years if Utah doesn’t implement major water conservation measures like, yesterday. 

While the disappearance of this massive lake would be most obvious in Salt Lake City, which borders the lake, plenty of rural communities across the state would also feel the effects of this loss, especially farmers that rely on its water to irrigate. But don’t blame farmers for drying up the lake – agriculture in the state has been on a steep decline since the late 1990s due to urban growth, and the Great Salt Lake has never been worse off, as this Salt Lake Tribune article from May 2022 noted. 

A bill passed in 2022 allows irrigators to leave water in streams instead of “using it or losing it,” an outdated western water law that requires water rights holders to use the water they are legally entitled to or else they lose their water allotment. This has encouraged farmers to use more water than they need, but thanks to HB 33, leaving water in the stream will now count as a “beneficial use,” meaning farmers won’t lose their water rights and won’t use more water than needed. 

This is a small bright spot on an otherwise bleak horizon where wildlife, watershed, and human health would be irreversibly damaged if the lake dries up. I am desperately hoping policy makers get their butts into gear before all’s lost.

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