Despite Deluge, Drought Still Feared for California

Jan 10, 2023
 by Seven Seas News Team

Two of California's largest reservoirs ─ Lake Shasta, above, and Lake Oroville ─ were at one-third capacity by the end of December 2022. The state might be looking at a fourth straight year of drought, despite January’s deadly flooding.

Desalination is one alternative for state facing conservation measures

In late 2022, federal water managers began to urge California municipalities and industrial users to get ready for a fourth dry year in a row, warning of water conservation measures to come. By the start of 2023, however, the state was on track to record the largest snowpack in the last 20 years.

By January 9 of this year, the snowpack was more than 200% above normal. While an above-average start was welcome, experts warned it doesn’t mean the snow will keep falling. In 2021, for instance, the state started at 160% of normal snowpack only to finish at a mere 37% by the end of the season. At this writing, the National Weather Service forecasts more than 6 feet of snow in the higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada until near the middle of January as “atmospheric rivers” — channels of water vapor in the sky — pummel California with precipitation, causing flooding and landslides.

But while it may be counterintuitive, flooding does not necessarily end a drought, especially when there’s a water deficit that has been building up for years like there is in California. It takes a great deal of water to refill reservoirs, and flood waters tend to rush downstream to the sea before they can percolate into aquifers to recharge groundwater. Sustained stretches of wet weather are far better for aquifer recharge than intense precipitation and flooding.

According to the United States Bureau of Reclamation, water storage is near historic lows in Central Valley Project reservoirs that supply 3 million acres of agriculture and 2.5 million residents, including Sacramento and San Francisco. At the end of December, two of the state’s largest reservoirs, Shasta and Oroville, were at one-third capacity.

Water Management Tempers Hopes

While hopes remain high that the snow will continue, the bureau warned:

If drought conditions extend into 2023, Reclamation will find it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to meet all the competing needs of the Central Valley Project without beginning the implementation of additional and more severe water conservation actions.

The science suggests that hopes should be tempered for above-average precipitation. The Western United States is in the depths of a megadrought that has brought the driest couple of decades in at least 1,200 years, and researchers estimate that 42% of the conditions are due to anthropogenic factors.

Last March, California water officials cut State Water Project allocations from 15% to 5% of normal for 27 million residents and 750,000 acres of agriculture. The reclamation bureau is slated to announce this year’s Central Valley Project water supply allocations in February.

Options Are Available for California

On a roller coaster of climate uncertainty, what can California do to achieve drought resilience?

California has had great success with large-scale storage and conveyance projects, managed aquifer recharge, groundwater banking initiatives, and reuse. Operation Next in Los Angeles, for instance, has the ambition of recycling 100% of the city’s water by 2035.

But many smaller utilities have been failing in recent years. Consolidation with larger utilities looked like a good solution on paper, but in practice, it was too time-consuming and complex for most service areas.

And while California has a lengthy coastline, large-scale desalination projects have not fared as well due to environmental concerns. Smaller-scale desalination, however, may not present the same challenges.

Seven Seas Water Group has earned praise for its low environmental impact desalination plants and is ready to extend desalination, water, and wastewater services in California. We leverage the power of decentralization to simplify projects, and our in-house Water-as-a-Service® model simplifies delivery, operations, and maintenance for the long haul. Contact Seven Seas to explore the many flexible options.