From Drought to Deluge: California's Water Rollercoaster Ride
Updated: Sep 6
By Macy Myers: No, we’re not talking about the Hawaiian Roller Coaster Ride! In the vast landscape of California, water has always been a precious and elusive resource. The state has encountered a series of water challenges throughout the years, from severe droughts to unexpected flooding. At the Water, Energy, and Technology (WET) Center, we understand the complex nature of these issues and work toward innovative solutions that help address any and all challenges surrounding California's precious resources. In this blog, we discuss and explore some of the challenges California has faced over the years, and the steps that have been taken to address them head-on.
Photo at Florence Lake by Macy Myers
Droughts: The Thirsty Years
From 2012 to 2016, California experienced one of the most devastating droughts in its history. Insufficient rainfall and depleted water resources left consumers and farmers in dire need of water. With temperatures soaring above average, the competition for this limited resource intensified. Water could not be adequately allocated, posing a significant challenge for agricultural communities, especially farmers. This concern spread throughout California and other parts of the United States, especially as pressures from weather events like El Niño persisted.
Flooding: A Deluge of Challenges
Ironically, 2023 has brought forth a different set of problems. The winter left severe winter storms and flooding in California, and some places had to call for help from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (FEMA) and the Small Business Administration (SBA) among other loans and grants to support losses felt across the state. Some areas in California received an abundance of water, with snowpack averages surpassing 200% in certain regions. This surplus led to unexpected flooding, causing strife in the Central Valley. Farmers found themselves going to great lengths to protect their crops and livestock, and unfortunately, some properties were lost under the deluge of water. This contrast between seasons of droughts and flooding showcases the unpredictable nature of water in California.
Groundwater Overdraft: Tapping into Desperation
During droughts, the reliance on groundwater became a lifeline for many. However, over-pumping and depletion of aquifers resulted in severe consequences. Land subsidence and long-term degradation of this vital water source became a pressing concern. Recognizing the gravity of the situation, the Department of Water Resources (DWR) approved funding for 12 groundwater basins across California, aiming to find a balance in groundwater usage. We discussed water scarcity, and what is being done to address those issues in previous blogs. However, we’d like to build off of what was shared in Sept. 2022.
In late 2021, Fresno State embarked on projects with multiple entities both on and off campus. The California Water Institute along with other leading organizations surrounding water is making efforts to address complications and actions being taken to preserve and protect water. You can read more about the most updated report on this project here.
Ecosystem Impacts: Ripple Effects of Water Scarcity
Diminished water availability had a profound impact on California's ecosystems. Reduced water levels in rivers and streams harmed fish populations, particularly endangered species like salmon. The altered flow patterns disrupted habitats and jeopardized water-dependent flora and fauna. Preserving these ecosystems is crucial for maintaining the delicate balance of nature.
Legal and Regulatory Complexities: Navigating a Water Rights Maze
California's intricate water rights system and complex regulations add layers of difficulty to water management efforts. Striking a balance between the competing interests of farmers, municipalities, and environmental concerns proved challenging. To address these complexities, the state introduced policies and regulations, at the Tri-County Water Infrastructure Summit among many, aiming to find common ground and foster collaboration on water issues.
Infrastructure and Storage Deficiencies: Building a Strong Foundation
California's aging water infrastructure, including dams, canals, and pipelines, required upgrades and repairs. Inadequate storage and conveyance capacities put additional strain on the already scarce water supply. This is no secret, as the state has already started projects like rebuilding the Friant Kern Canal starting in 2022 to mitigate the loss of 50% of water conveyance due to subsidence. Recent funding of $300 million for infrastructure development offers hope to continue similar projects in California. Other states like Mississippi continue to build infrastructure as well. These investments will enhance water storage capacities, improve delivery systems, and ensure clean and reliable water for future generations.
Water Quality Concerns: Beyond Quantity Lies Quality
Water quality emerged as a growing concern alongside water scarcity. Drought conditions concentrated pollutants in water bodies due to reduced dilution. Moreover, saltwater intrusion into coastal groundwater aquifers posed a threat to drinking water supplies. Ensuring access to safe and clean water is paramount for the well-being of communities across California.
Surfing the Waves of Change: Building a Resilient and Sustainable Water Future
There is no doubt that California has confronted significant water challenges, ranging from prolonged droughts to unexpected flooding. Through conservation campaigns, groundwater management legislation, infrastructure investments, and sustainable water use practices, the state continues to address these issues in more ways than one. At the WET Center, we remain committed to finding innovative solutions for California's water future by learning from past experiences.
“The crises created by the wide swings in the availability of water along with the related institutions, laws, and regulations that govern the uses, have created a crucible of both destruction and creation. Some issues have boiled over and the changes caused by the reactions will become permanent. A good example is the changes underway in the use of groundwater. Some geographic areas are doing fine but many others will have to take drastic measures that may result in permanent changes in the landscape such as permanent fallowing of agricultural land and its attendant production. But that same crucible often congeals other products such as institutional arrangements of partners working together for the first time to manage collectively for the best outcomes possible. In some cases, additional efforts are produced that enhance the new arrangements. An example of such results include how some groundwater sustainability agencies first formed to protect their own territory but groundwater knows no political boundary. So with some pointed directions, those first efforts have amalgamated into more logical units of management and hydrologic areas. These arrangements have the potential to link both surface water and groundwater into better water optimization strategies. Other changes in the mix include the formation of new entities to help manage the environments created by the future lack of any significant water. Land trusts and other institutional mechanisms to best utilize land changing from one use to more sustainable conditions are coming out of the crucible. The bottom line is while water conditions in California will likely continue to be volatile we continue to adapt and deal with the hand we are dealt as best we can. The most important adaptations are institutional. Collaborating together for the best outcomes is the only prescription for a sustainable water future,” said Sarge Green, Research Scientist at the California Water Institute. Wondering how we as an organization address some of those challenges...? We’re so glad you asked.
The WET Center Assists California in Reaching a Sustainable Water Future
The Water, Energy, and Technology Center is playing a pivotal role in empowering entrepreneurs who are dedicated to making a positive impact on the world through their revolutionary water, energy, and agricultural technologies. Situated in the Central Valley region, the WET Center not only supports these innovative individuals but also collaborates closely with key stakeholders to safeguard the region's most vital asset: water.
At the heart of the WET Center's mission is the recognition that the convergence of water, energy, and technology presents extraordinary possibilities for addressing pressing challenges in sustainability, resource efficiency, and climate resilience. Entrepreneurs focused on water-related advancements are at the forefront of developing cutting-edge solutions that conserve, purify, and manage this precious resource. Our state-of-the-art testing labs are designed to suit the needs of our members and ventures, ensuring that any experiments or projects will be conducted safely and accurately. Our labs include a hydraulics lab, a sprinkler lab, and a variety of other testing environments, offering ventures the chance to scale their innovative water-focused solution to the next level.
Crucially, the WET Center recognizes the importance of collaboration and partnerships with key stakeholders in the Central Valley region. By working closely with governmental bodies, agricultural organizations, research institutions, and local communities, the center fosters a collective effort to protect and sustainably manage the region's water resources. This collaborative approach ensures that the innovative technologies and practices developed by entrepreneurs at the WET Center are effectively integrated into the larger ecosystem of water management and resource protection.
In conclusion, the WET Center is an invaluable resource for entrepreneurs seeking to revolutionize the water, energy, and agricultural sectors. Through support and guidance, the WET Center empowers these visionary individuals to develop and implement groundbreaking technologies that conserve, purify, and manage water efficiently. Moreover, by actively engaging with key stakeholders in the Central Valley region, the WET Center fosters a collaborative environment that protects and sustains the region's most precious resource: water!
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