Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

Roundtable: California's water capture efforts

 February 24, 2023 at 12:27 PM PST

S1: Major winter storms are hitting much of California this week. But what does it all mean with the state's long running drought ? I met Hoffman and this is KPBS roundtable. San Diego and the rest of California have been getting hit hard by storm after storm. In some areas , it's causing devastating flooding. All this rain does present an opportunity for a state battered by years of severe drought. But state infrastructure and other issues are making saving that rainwater a little complicated. This week , the state Water Authority removed one of those roadblocks. Joining us to discuss how storage capacity is key to getting out of the drought are Haley Smith. She's a reporter from the Los Angeles Times focusing on drought , wildfires and climate change. Alister Bland is here with us. He's a reporter who covers water and climate for Calmatters. And San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Michael Smolens is back with us. I want to welcome you all here to roundtable. Haley , first question's going to go to you , and then Michael and Alistair will ask you to jump in. You know , we've been seeing the impacts of these winter storms , lots of rain and a lot of snow that it's brought us. So maybe simple question.

S2: And and it's certainly more nuanced than that. But yes , the answer is we are still in a drought. And , you know , I think it can be confusing for people to look around at all the rain and snow that we've received this winter and then also know that we're still under drought conservation orders and severe watering limits , at least for millions of us in Southern California. So there's no doubt that the rain and snow we got this winter made a difference. Reservoirs are fuller. We had record snowpack. Soil moisture has improved , but most experts still say it's going to take more than a handful of storms to undo essentially years of deficit. And on top of that surface water , you know , rain and snow is really only one factor of our water supply picture. Groundwater didn't really benefit much from these storms. The Colorado River , which is another major source for us , didn't really benefit from these storms. So even though we're doing better , we still have to plan for water scarcity when we when we think about the big picture.

S1: And Alister , we want to hear from you.

S3: And then just like what happened last year , they just turned off and then we went dry for February. So and this is a pattern that's been predicted by climate scientists that we're going to have wetter wets and shorter , wetter wets and then longer , drier dries. One way to look at the drought classification is , I think , is that it's just to consider that we are either in a drought. Or about to be a drought. That's just how it goes in California. Yeah , and I almost think that all of us need to change , not the conversation , but the terminology. We're sort of going to be under a sort of a drought mindset. And I think people get that. I think people understand most people , even though we're getting these deluges , they've seen the stories , the relentless stories about just the long term drought and the future concern. And there's been a lot of discussion about the ebb and flow. So Alister mentioned the atmospheric rivers and the long droughts. I think it's confusing to people , but I do think they get it. But yeah , I just think that they're there. The more we kind of kind of keep focused on the long term , which is hard to do when people are getting washed out to sea by some of these storms.

S1: We're not talking about millions. Not talking about billions , but trillions of gallons of rainwater has been falling in California. Alister , you know , in theory , it sounds great. Let's put out some big buckets , catch it and boom , droughts over. But as you write , it's just it's just not that easy.

S3: So about 80 years ago or sometime last century , the government built a lot of dams , obviously higher up in the watersheds. And so any water that falls upstream of those dams is captured in the reservoirs. So that's that's taken care of now. But it's not it is not enough and lower down in the system. In the Delta , for example , the Sacramento Sally King , Delta water pumps divert water out and it gets stored in reservoirs south of the delta or it gets immediately used by cities and farms. There's also some stormwater capture systems in urban areas that are being developed now. And Haley , my village , tell us more about that. I think L.A. is working on it. There's a lot of talk about it. The water that's falling on the ground that will not go into a reservoir , it's going to go into a river or just in the into the ocean or something. And there's a variety of ways that we can capture it and then sink it into the ground or put it into reservoirs. And the state officials are working on it.

S1: And Haley , along those lines , what are some of the big water storage projects that are happening in the state ? And if you want , you can answer Alistair's question , too , that he had. Sure.

S2: Sure. The answer is sort of one in the same. I mean , I guess there are a number of projects , various sizes. A lot of them tend to be controversial. One proposal that's been floated around for decades is finally getting some traction , and that's the CITES reservoir north of Sacramento. I think it would hold one and a half million acre feet of storm water from the Sacramento River. But these projects tend to get pushback from environmental groups or agricultural interests who don't necessarily want the development or say it could have harms to the environment or to people and animals that rely on the river. But then , even at a smaller level here in L.A. , as Alistair mentioned , we have some major initiatives underway for stormwater capture. And so , you know , I think when people think about stormwater capture , maybe they are picturing buckets or dams. But what we're trying to do here in L.A. and in other parts of the state is think about really one of the best places to put all that water is back into the ground. So we have these aquifers and basins beneath our feet that are a huge piece of our water supply. And so even just removing concrete and asphalt and hard escaping to let more rainwater percolate into the earth and recharge those groundwater basins can make a huge difference and give us more to tap into when things inevitably get dry again.


S3: In San Diego specifically , they've done a lot of diverse aspects to get different sources of water. They have increased storage. They built a brand new reservoir up in North County , and even Hayne was a first , you know , local dam reservoir project in a half century. Also within the last couple of decades , they raised the dam at the San Vicente Reservoir out East counties. So they've been doing that. But one that I think is also to store , you know , imported water , that we get recycled water that that we're we're doing more and more of. You know , it's got a wastewater recycling plant coming on and , of course , desalination. So it's I don't want to say it isn't a priority. They've spent a lot of money. But I think , you know , going to the more diverse sources is what they've done down here in addition to increasing some storage.

S1: And Haley , what can you sort of tell us about how much rain across the state is being captured and how much is maybe being lost ? You know , it ends up going down rivers and eventually into oceans.

S2: Mm hmm. Yeah. I mean , during January's atmospheric river storms , I think the estimates were that trillions and trillions of gallons of storm water went on. Captured and were essentially whisked out to the ocean. Here in L.A. , with our sort of current existing infrastructure. The L.A. River is basically channelized to direct water to the ocean. I think the estimate is somewhere around 80% of an average storm ends up in the Pacific. So part of this , I will say , is by design , or at least it was when it was designed 100 years ago. You know , water managers in the state have to account for flooding. In addition to planning for droughts. So they have this sort of dual purpose of like , hey , there's all this rainwater pouring in. We we want to get it away from people's homes and we don't want floods to happen. But at the same time , we don't necessarily want to just shoot it all away into the ocean. So it's a little bit of a delicate dance they have to do.

S1: And Alastair , do you know what's preventing like state and local water agencies from maybe capturing and storing more of that rain , whether it be underground in those big aquifers like some of it financial or as Haley talked about , like flood related ? Yeah.

S3: Haley was driving it by design. A lot of the water is going to the ocean. We built channelized rivers to usher the water out , out of there and out to the ocean. So we've got to kind of reverse reverse some of that. And that's happening in the Central Valley. While the levees are being removed to allow rivers to flood on the floodplains to beside them. At the same time , there's a lot of effort , a lot of it funded by the state to design systems , to then hold that water there long enough that it can sink into the ground and then then it's stored there. And I want to add one more thing that there was an estimate that came out from a group in the Bay Area that during January , all the water that fell in the Central Valley watershed of all that water , 40% was captured in upstream reservoirs. So they did pretty well.

S1: And I think Michael and Haley want to jump in. Michael , you first. And Haley , go ahead.

S3: Yeah , I one thing I have to lose sight of is that a lot of water , a lot of the runoff , you know , serves as an ecological purpose. And it's not necessarily , you know , people versus the environment. I mean , you know , these ecosystems need to be kept up for the health of us all. You know , certain areas need to be flushed out the delta to keep , you know , briny water and salty water from , you know , coming in upstream. So there's a , you know , a big purpose for that. Having said that , the amount of water that's been falling , you know , could you save enough and also do that ? Sure , probably you could. And could you do it logistically and politically ? Probably not.

S2: I was going to sort of support their their points as well. Yeah. There's this idea that , you know , trillions of gallons ended up in the ocean. That doesn't mean we could have captured a trillion , you know , trillions of gallons. Some of it is uncatchable. And then , yeah , to Michael's point , water wasted is sort of not the right terminology. There are environmental benefits. There are other uses for this water. So there's more than one way to think about this.

S1: You're listening to KPBS roundtable. Our guest this week are Haley Smith from The L.A. Times , Alistair Bland from Cal Matters and the Union Tribune's Michael Smolens. So , Alistair , earlier this week , the state's water board , they decided to temporarily increase capacity at some Central Valley reservoirs. That move angered some environmentalists. They say that , you know , this is going to endanger fish as a result.

S3: The State Water Resources Control Board waived a very basic rule that requires that a certain amount of water be allowed to flow out so that intercepts could be through the delta all the way into saltwater. There there's there's rules that dictate how much has to be left to flow out. And environmentalists and many scientists consider these rules very basic foundations of a struggling but ostensibly healthy ecosystem. And the state water Board waived that rule. And so this will allow more water to be stored upstream in reservoirs and and later be mostly used as water supply for people. And that waiver , the waiver of that rule , it was made possible by an action that Governor Newsom took last week when he suspended two environmental rules in California , one of which requires that agencies comply with environmental laws. So it's so that is a law that ostensibly protects the environment. But but but Newsom waived it or suspended it. And that and that enabled water board to then waive the flow. So as one source I spoke to called it , it's a breakdown of law and order in the Delta. Hmm.

S1: And Haley , so you said we can't store all the rain that comes down.

S2: Right. So if we can improve our water supply locally , then we don't have to purchase as much from Northern California. And that eliminates some of the issues that Sarah's just talking about with the Delta and things like that. And we don't have to purchase as much from the Colorado River , which , as we all know , is dangerously low right now. And the federal government is forcing California and six other river states to cut our use of that river pretty drastically. So I think that that's the ultimate goal here. I don't have specific numbers handy , though.

S1: And we know that this whole issue , you know , of capturing more rainwater , it's important because the last three or so years , they've been extremely , painfully dry for our state following even longer periods of drought.

S3: The future is pretty much set for us. I mean , we don't know exactly what's going to happen , but we're going to , you know , will be and I think Alister Meyer said in periods of extended drought or on the cusp of drought , you know , broken up by these atmospheric rivers and some deluges , and maybe that'll be long term for a little bit. So I think that storage is going to be there's going to be increasing pressure on that. We know the difficulty of it. Haley mentioned the citrus. Look how long that's taken to even gain traction. I mean , it's been like a couple of decades. I don't know. But it's just been so long. It's part of the mix. But I think that the big answer is sort of a diversity of water sources. And we haven't really touched on I mean , the real issue is agriculture. And , you know , that's where the bulk of the water goes. And I don't think anybody's talking about just cutting off agriculture from water. But I think at some point , some choices have to be made as to what's smart.

S1: And Alister , this questions for you. You know , we're talking about the Central Valley there in California. The economy you write , sort of lives off that , pulling out all the water , out of the rain , driving the economy there.

S3: So surface supplies are always strained. And so they've been drawing out of the ground , as , you know , pumping water out of the ground faster that it can they can go back in. And this is causing the ground to sink and collapse. And then cracking highways and canals. And the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act was passed nine years ago , requiring sustainability to be achieved through various measures. And it's pretty agreed that agriculture will have to reduce acreage. And I think the estimates are that about 20% or I don't want to say 25% , but at least 20% of irrigated acreage will have to be eliminated to achieve sustainability. So they have to use less water. Yes.

S1: And not to get more gloomy here , but state regulators are predicting that California's water supply could drop another 10% , and that's by 2040. Haley , we know that , California governor. Gavin Newsom announced a plan to deal with that looming reality last summer. What is it called for ? Does it call for cutbacks in area like agriculture , more recycle investments or what sort of it it.

S2: All of the above , right ? There's going to there's going to be a multifaceted approach to this because as we've talked about , all signs are pointing to a hotter , drier California potentially punctuated by bouts of extreme weather. So this isn't just about dealing with our water issues today , tomorrow , next month. This is really about like what is the long term big picture look like here. So , yes. So to your point , Newsom did unveil this strategy in August , I want to say , and it aims at accelerating infrastructure projects , upgrading the state's water system , which is , as we've mentioned in many places , a century old , and also boosting conservation. There are some plans within it , some specifics to expand groundwater capabilities by at least 500,000 acre feet and to add 3 million acre feet of storage. So these are all good goals. Obviously , most of that work was not done before the storms arrived this winter , though.

S1: And San Diego is often held up as a model for the way that the local water authority has diversified where it gets as water. But there's also a big cost associated with this investment.

S3: The air out of the balloon , San Diego being this , you know , a wonderful model. It has done a great job. I mean , a lot of it , frankly , was political. San Diego City County Water Authority wanted to get out from under the control , basically , of the Metropolitan Water District. You know , we're still part of met , but moving to where we're at , we've diversified. They they got the separate deal for Colorado River water through the Imperial Irrigation District , which is a major source. And I mentioned sewage recycling , wastewater recycling , that is , and desalination , among other things. The costs have gone through the roof. It's prohibitively expensive for some people to where they're , you know , not thinking about whether they flush their toilet in certain circumstances or not just to save water , but because of their water bills. Some time ago , at the beginning of all this , when it was clear where we were headed , a water wise friend of mine said , you know , this isn't the end of water. It's the end of cheap water.

S1: But I think you mentioned politics in there. And , Haley , we know that you talked to one expert who made the distinction between a literal drought and a political one.

S2: So there is the hydrologic drought , which is a reflection of our water conditions , snowpack , reservoir levels , soil moisture , etc.. And then there is the political drought , which is , you know , Governor Newsom declared a statewide drought emergency in 2021. He has not lived in that yet , and he hasn't even really given any indication of potentially lifting that any time soon. And that's partially because that declaration gives the state some some powers and some authorities to help local and regional jurisdictions address some of their water supply issues. I think that was sort of the distinction there. And , you know , the expert you referenced made the point that we probably shouldn't declare the drought , quote unquote , over either politically or hydrologic because we are entering this new climate reality and we're probably never going to be able to live the way we have in the past. So we really do need to sort of re envision or reimagine our relationship with water and and make conservation a way of life and not just something we do when it stops raining.

S1: Alister , go ahead.

S3: I think California has a lot of room to to keep growing if that's what's going to happen , and then still use less water. And that's been the trend in urban areas in the past 20 or 30 years. Water use went up with population growth for a while. But then you look at these graphs and you see even as population increased overall , not per capita , but just per capita , but overall water use actually has declined in a lot of urban areas even as population grew. So that is achievable. And various experts and analysts say that we can continue achieving more using less water. And it is the cheapest form of water is its conservation.

S1: And we know that California is under a drought emergency , but we know some places are hit harder than others. Alister , I'm just curious , do you think it's fair to look at it from a statewide perspective , or is it better to look at it , you know , region by region.

S3: To region by region ? It seems more more of an efficient way to do that. And I think they do do that. The drought monitor , I believe , goes county by county. But but yeah , there is there's a region on the north coast of California. Well , I should say the whole north coast of California receives far more rain had been in the south. And I spoke with the director of a of a water agency up there who who says that every year their main reservoir fills up , they have no drought. And he said , I'm sorry , I wish we had a tunnel through a mountain and we can send you some of our water , but we can't. So there there's it varies from place to place for sure.

S2: I will say this region by region thing is also sort of a newer a newer approach because during the last drought under Governor Brown , he did declare a state wide drought emergency and set sort of statewide rules. And I think a lot of people were waiting for Newsom to do that as we were getting into this current drought and he never really did. And ultimately he ended up doing sort of a county by county. I think drought emergency was first in like Mendocino and Sonoma counties and then adding more and more based on local conditions. And the idea was , yeah , we're going to be a little bit more reactive to local conditions. And so now on the flip side , as we are getting all this rain and snow , I've spoken to some state officials who are saying the same thing. We're probably going to leave this drought the way we came in , which is county by county or region by region. So that'll be interesting to see if that's what ends up coming to pass.

S1: And as we sort of wrap up the show here , I want to get your final thoughts. You know , what are you guys going to be looking for as this issue around water ? Water captures supply. And of course , the drought evolved. And Alister , we can start with you.

S3: Groundwater storage is going to be a big one. And I I'm eager to see how aggressively we develop and advance the programs to grab that storm water that's coming down the river systems and bring it out into fields and train at area basins and sink it. And it's work is happening really fast now. And we just this this winter was a lesson that we have to act quickly and take advantage of those spells because they didn't sneak up on us. Nobody saw it as this wet spell coming. Michael Haley Well , I think that , you know , sort of the all of the above approach that looking at how we , as you know , a state and individual regions look to solve this problem. You know , I've used the term diverse water sources , which San Diego City was not alone and others have have done that. And capture is certainly one of them. But I think the key thing is , is I also had mentioned conservation and a lot of that I think , is going to have to come from the from the agriculture. There's just so much of the water is being used to say that that's going to be part of it. Certainly , you know , whatever can be wrung out of the residential and. Urban and commercial areas and more can be I think there's just going to be more focus on whether , you know , farmland is going to be siloed or different kind of crops are going to be used because that's going to be a big deal.

S2: I think for me , if you're asking what I'll be paying attention to , there's probably two things come to mind. One is Colorado River. This is a huge story and the implications and ramifications of this are going to be massive. And so that's something we all , I think , are going to be watching very closely. That's sort of a more pessimistic answer. On a more positive answer would be I I'm excited about recycling. I think water recycling is going to be increasingly important. And just being smarter about how we use and reuse our water , I think that's a big part of the future of water use in California.

S1: We're going to have to end it there for this week's edition of KPBS roundtable. And I want to thank our guests , Haley Smith from The L.A. Times , Alistair Bland from Calmatters , and Michael Smolens from the San Diego Union-Tribune. Be sure to stream our show any time as a podcast. Roundtable is produced by Andrew Bracken and Rebecca Cecconi as our technical director. I'm your host , Matt Hoffman. Thanks so much for being here with us and have a great weekend.

Ways To Subscribe
A motorist drives on a wet road under a snow-covered hillside Friday, Feb. 24, 2023, in Agua Dulce, Calif. California and other parts of the West faced heavy snow and rain Friday from the latest winter storm to pound the U.S.
Marcio Jose Sanchez
Associated Press
A motorist drives on a wet road under a snow-covered hillside Friday, Feb. 24, 2023, in Agua Dulce, Calif. California and other parts of the West faced heavy snow and rain Friday from the latest winter storm to pound the U.S.

Matt Hoffman hosts a discussion on California's efforts to capture storm water in the wake of the latest wet, wintry weather.

Guests include Hayley Smith from the Los Angeles Times, Alastair Bland from CalMatters, and The San Diego Union-Tribune's Michael Smolens.