Nature Nearby: What’s happening with this ‘extreme’ drought?

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A Winters Express op-ed column

By Alli Permann, Putah Creek Council Special to the Express Summer is underway and that means splashing around Putah Creek, hiking, camping, and… heat domes? With this excessive heat, the thought on everyone’s minds is likely how does this severe drought affect water resources throughout California? The extreme temperatures coupled with the low snowpack in the Sierra have meant fast evaporation in many of the state’s reservoirs; not to mention a heat dome that has descended upon much of the United States bringing record breaking heat to even the most mild summer climates. According to the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, California’s 1,500 reservoirs are 50 percent lower than what they should be this time of year. This is largely thought to be the result of changing climate creating wetter wet periods and drier dry spells in California. It’s estimated that about 74 percent of the state is under “Extreme Drought” conditions with 26 percent of the state (including Sacramento Valley) in a state of “Exceptional Drought.” Lake Berryessa shows evidence of this. A drive around the lake shows a depleted water line nearly 30 feet below the famous spillway. Similarly, Lake Oroville is experiencing a rapid depletion in their water resources. The lake is expected to reach a record low by the end of the summer, possibly resulting in the shutdown of the dam’s hydroelectric plant. This would put a huge strain on an electrical grid that is already hard pressed during the hottest months of the year. Lake Oroville would see a shutdown of its hydroelectric power plant if the reservoir falls below 640 feet. The lake is currently at 699 feet. Lake Folsom is also seeing extremely low levels compared to previous years. At the end of May, the lake usually holds 85 percent of its capacity. In May 2021, the lake saw only 37 percent of its capacity, a low that hasn’t been recorded since 1977. What does this all mean for California’s water resources? Many experts are pointing out that the large-scale water management projects built throughout the West are outdated and can’t withstand climate change. With earlier and more extreme rain periods and drier, extreme summers, the old reservoir system simply cannot withstand both extremes. The Oroville Dam crisis of 2017 was a wake up call and served as an example of what happens during extreme rain conditions after its near collapse during the 2017 flood year. Proposed projects no longer rely on reservoirs along rivers and streams, but instead look underground. “Water banking” or underground water storage would mean capturing these predicted intense flows and then pumping water back underground into natural aquifers to replenish groundwater and limit evaporation. Some experts have advocated for updated reservoir management across California pointing to out-of-date guidelines that no longer align with the changing snowmelt and extreme temperatures. Others have advocated for an increased use of natural floodplains which could help capture extreme or increasing flows while supporting and benefiting local wildlife. In addition to putting a strain on people, the drought is negatively impacting wildlife and endangered fish species’ particularly in freshwater systems like the San Joaquin- Sacramento Delta. In April, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife announced they would be shipping 17 million fish to the sea due to the historic drought. With river levels quickly drying up, water temperatures are too high making salmon migration out to sea nearly impossible. How can we protect Putah Creek during this tumultuous time? Thankfully, the Putah Creek Accord set the ground rules for guaranteed and continued flows out to the Yolo Bypass. Another key feature of the Accord was a pre-designed schedule for determining drought flows. The schedule strives to protect native fish populations while still sharing in the pain of cutbacks with Solano County residents. Still, protecting riparian systems throughout these tumultuous and extreme drought conditions will require planning ahead in California’s water resource management.

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