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Environment & Science

Drought to Deluge: Are we saving enough rain water?

A wake trails behind a boat on Diamond Valley Lake in Hemet, California on March 30, 2017. The amount of water in the reservoir, which is fed by snowmelt from the Sierra Nevadas hundreds of miles away, has doubled in the last year.
A wake trails behind a boat on Diamond Valley Lake in Hemet, California on March 30, 2017. The amount of water in the reservoir, which is fed by snowmelt from the Sierra Nevadas hundreds of miles away, has doubled in the last year.
Andrew Cullen for KPCC

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California was in the midst of a years-long drought, and then the deluge hit.

That extreme weather shift put stress on the state's water system, raising questions about whether we have been able to capture enough to meet future demands.

Take Two talks with three of the state's top water experts to tell us what we banked, and how to improve the system for when the next storms roll in.


Interview highlights

How did we do in swinging from drought to deluge?

Thompson: We probably did as well as could be imagined.

In this particular year, we did a pretty good job in avoiding the floods.

At the same time, we've taken as much of that water that has been available and have stored it for purposes of this year and future years.

How well was that water managed in Southern California?

Kightlinger: We've done a good job down here. Metropolitan has built up a good resource of storage options where we can put water into groundwater banks and surface water reservoirs.

We are looking at putting more water in storage in 2017 than we have in our entire history.

One of the challenges is that while we've continued building and preparing for droughts here in Southern California, you haven't seen that same emphasis statewide. 

What didn't we do right when it came to capturing rainwater?

Marcus: I think we cut some things a little too close on fish and wildlife protection.

We lost a couple years of a three-year salmon run, which is really pretty serious, and the fishing industry is going to feel that for many years to come.   

How do you figure out who gets the water between urban and rural areas?

Thompson: Some of the cities in the rural areas are highly dependent upon groundwater.

In the most recent drought, we drew down on that groundwater.

That lowered the groundwater table to a degree that those rural areas could no longer get the groundwater that they needed to supply their domestic populations.

What else do we need to do to make sure there's enough water stored up for the next drought phase?

Marcus: For small communities, there still remains the very large issue of how to help subsidize their operations and maintenance costs.

Some of these small communities simply don't have the wherewithal to pay for modern treatment systems, even if they do have water.

When it comes to storing, I do think that legislation is going to put us on a path to more sustainable groundwater use.

But we also have to think more and more intentionally, as many folks are trying, to find out how we can get that water into the ground faster.

What tools are already in place to help us store this water better?

Thompson: We have a number of reservoirs in California. They're designed both to store water as well as to avoid floods, which means keeping that space in the reservoir open so that when you have a big storm or you have that snowmelt, you're able to capture that and avoid the flood risk downstream.

So one thing we need to do is figure out how to better operate the reservoirs we have already.

That might mean, for example, you might have a reservoir that, if you're forced to release water from that reservoir, you might be able to store that water somewhere else. 

The second thing is to create more storage capacity. We have a lot of natural storage capacity in groundwater aquifers throughout the state, so we have to start thinking about those.

That's both a question of making sure our laws are in place to permit that, as well as having the conveyance facilities necessary to move the water where it might be available to where those groundwater aquifers exist.

What are the things we need to do to store this water better?

Kightlinger: Probably the number one challenge in California is our conveyance system. We don't have the ability to move water where we need it to when we need to.

So we're going to need more off-stream reservoirs, and then of course there's the governor's California water fix, his idea of moving water to bypass the delta system through tunnels.

Listen to our full roundtable by clicking the blue audio player above.

Special coverage: 'Drought to deluge'

This story is part of a full day of special coverage examining what the wet winter has meant for our water supply. Check out the full coverage Monday, April 3 on...

Morning Edition: While a healthy snowpack will be good for imported water sources to Southern California, that’s not necessarily the case for local sources of water. Reporter Emily Guerin explains.

Take Two: Host A Martinez talks to state and local water experts about the lessons we’ve learned from the recent cycle of dry to wet and what that means for how we manage water going forward.

AirTalk: Host Larry Mantle takes listener calls on whether the wet winter has caused you to rethink water conservation.

All Things Considered: Host Nick Roman takes a look at how the sudden change from parched to lush backcountry has affected local wildlife and habitat.