Looming El Niño Exposes California's Water Vulnerabilities

We should be careful what we wish for. Californians have been praying for rain for four years. Now experts say we may face the strongest series of rainstorms on record. California is expected to get more rain this winter than in the last four years combined, more even than during the 1997 El Niño that killed 17 people in California and caused over $500 million in damage. Unfortunately, despite the 18 years that have passed since that El Niño, California remains perilously unprepared for the next one.

An imminent mega-disaster on the scale of Hurricane Katrina seems unimaginable in California, but that's exactly the warning being issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). California's levees hold back floodwaters across the state, but many of our levees are antiquated and are breaking down. The ASCE gives California's levees a "D" grade, finding that half of the 47 levees in and around Sacramento and San Joaquin County are "unacceptable." Levee failures in Northern California could cause a flood disaster comparable to the one caused by Hurricane Katrina. Indeed, the National Weather Service says Sacramento has the second highest flood risk of any major city in the United States - behind only New Orleans.

It is clear California must take serious steps to protect our cities and towns from serious storms and potentially devastating flooding. So far, we've taken only baby steps. The Department of Water Resources committed $150 million earlier this year for Central Valley flood protection initiatives. But that's not even 1% of what Governor Brown's own California Water Action Plan says we need to bring our levees up to current standards. We cannot wait until disaster strikes to make the real investments needed to keep our people safe. We must do more, and we must start now.

First, we should use modern building techniques to reinforce our levees with compacted clay, high performance turf reinforcement mat, and grass sod to prevent erosion. Second, we should use a computer modeling system like that installed in post-Katrina New Orleans to forecast storms and provide early warnings. Third, to pay for these programs, we should pursue a wide range of sources, such as federal grants and loans, bonds, user fees, and public-private partnerships.

In addition to protecting ourselves from massive storms, we must redouble our efforts to conserve and capture the water they bring. Even if the highest El Niño predictions come to pass, the winter rains will do little to solve our drought. Much of the rainfall will be too warm to rebuild the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains that fills our reservoirs. Instead, the rainfall will largely be routed into the ocean to prevent our dams from overflowing and our streets from flooding. This while our farmers continue to fallow their fields, and more towns in the Central Valley see their wells running dry.

It is high time to reinvest in California's water infrastructure. As our climate continues to change, we will continue to see hotter and longer droughts, punctuated by stronger and more devastating storms. We cannot just move from crisis to crisis, clear the rubble and the mud, and return to the status quo. We know how to rebuild California's water infrastructure to weather wet times and dry. California is not Louisiana. We can do better. But the time to act is now.


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