Southern California has already seen daily rainfall records set in several areas of southern California this season, predicted in part due to a cyclical global weather pattern called El Nino. The Los Angeles area averages 14.81 inches annually (LA Almanac 1877-2015). The last four years have been the driest on record. About every region in California is missing at least a year’s worth of precipitation. In fact, the south coast of California Is missing almost two years’ worth of rain (1.82 years to be exact).

El Niño and La Niña are opposite phases of a natural climate pattern across the tropical Pacific Ocean which swings back and forth every 3-7 years on average. Together, they are called ENSO (pronounced “en-so”), which is short for El Niño-Southern Oscillation.

The ENSO pattern in the tropical Pacific can be in one of three states: El Niño, Neutral, or La Niña. El Niño (the warm phase), and La Niña (the cool phase) both lead to significant differences in average ocean temperatures, winds, surface pressure, and rainfall across parts of the tropical Pacific. Neutral indicates conditions are near their long-term average.

During El Niño, the surface winds across the entire tropical Pacific are weaker than usual, and the ocean temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific are warmer than average. Rainfall is below average over Indonesia and above average over the central or eastern Pacific. Rising air motion (which is linked to storms and rainfall) increases over the central or eastern Pacific as surface pressure tends to be lower than average.  Meanwhile, an increase in sinking air motion over Indonesia leads to higher surface pressure and dryness.  

The question on everyone’s mind is – will this El Nino and the potential for above normal rainfall amounts translate into a solution to California’s drought? The answer is complicated and not very affirmative. California’s state water project infrastructure was, at the time it was built some 50+ years ago, a technical marvel, the largest such project in the world. Even the ancient Romans would have been proud. But the system to transport water from the northern 1/3 of the state, to arid Southern California has not kept up with population growth. The state water project was built to address the thirst of California’s growing population. It was oversized then to support 16 million. It now provides water for nearly 25 million, and is in dire need of expensive upgrades. These upgrades are now known as the California Water Fix.

California aqueduct flowing through the Mojave desert in northern Los Angeles County.

California aqueduct flowing through the Mojave desert in northern Los Angeles County.

The main purpose of the state water project is to store water and distribute it to 29 urban and agricultural water suppliers in Northern California, the San Francisco Bay Area, the San Joaquin Valley, the Central Coast, and Southern California. Of the contracted water supply, 70 percent provides supplemental water to some 25 million urban users and the remaining 30 percent goes to about 750,000 acres of irrigated farmland. A good portion of the farmland served receives very little rainfall annually. Exactly who should control the water produced from melting Sierra snowpack (now at 15% above normal) and stored in mountain reservoirs has been worth fighting over for many decades; a quiet war which must be settled before any serious statewide plumbing or conveyance project can be implemented.

The problem is further exasperated by a lack of sufficient water storage infrastructure, especially south of the Sacramento Delta. In this era of CEQA and environmental activism the prospects for construction of necessary surface storage facilities has been halted, with little chance of new (surface storage) projects ever getting approved. Underground storage projects are also under great scrutiny and face ever stiffening restrictions.

A key component of ensuring ample supplies of water throughout the state remains in the control of the individual user. Water conservation should be a cultural lesson we pass down to our children. Regardless of future improvements to water infrastructure or conveyance, wise water use is the least expensive and just makes sense.

A few ways to continue the march toward water self-reliance comes with further conservation as we build new homes. A new array of water-saving technologies, such as gray-water re-use and rainwater capture need to become part of the plumbing infrastructure for every new home being built. To retrofit almost any existing home with even the simplest of these technologies is expensive and is just not an option for most homeowners. If these water saving technologies are incorporated as part of new home design, it becomes affordable to the home-buying public and open to a myriad of different size and style homes.

Water saving landscape design (xeriscape) technologies are also looking good (further stabilizing home values) while decreasing daily water use by 50 percent or more, an important step to ensuring enough water for the future.

Having a reliable water future comes down to doing everything we can to use water efficiently, as a society. Efficient water use is not something done only at the tap or in the garden. Agriculture is often cited as a key obstacle to water conservation. The fact is much of the agricultural land in California is arid or semi-arid desert. Without irrigation most if this land would not be able to support crops. Capturing, storing and transporting water to these regions is a challenging business, but the superior soil conditions in most of these regions means simply adding water allowed the state to once become the largest fruit and vegetable producer in the United States. The advent of drip irrigation and a host of other related technologies and alternate farming techniques have, over time, made the agricultural industry far more water efficient. Still….the lack of water will continue to limit this important part of our economy.

It will take at least six wetter than average years (for LA this means annual rainfall well above 15”) to begin to climb out of this drought, so NO even if this El Nino is really wet, it will not bring a solution to our water woes. Receiving less than 15” of rain annually appears to be the “new normal”. The advances described above and others can trim the water use of the average California house and irrigated field substantially.

The spike in population California has experienced since the 1960’s, when the state water project was finished, is just one of many stressors on the states’ plumbing system. This system is in a word – unsustainable. The California Water Fix, the name now given to repairing California’s statewide plumbing problems, would improve the natural direction of river flows, help native fish species navigate to and from the ocean during critical migration periods, guard against water supply disruptions, and ensure local water projects such as recycling and groundwater recharge are integrated to benefit the largest possible number of stakeholders. The Governors edict to integrate water projects as much as possible could not have come at a more opportune time. As an environmental professional I am asking you to please support the California Water Fix. It just makes good sense.