Over the past 10 years, California has seen two of the most severe droughts in a millennium separated by two of the wettest years on record. This erratic weather, volatile even by California standards, shattered heat records, killed millions of trees, fueled explosive wildfires and caused significant flooding. As California’s changing climate pushes us deeper into uncharted climate waters, past records are becoming a less reliable tool for predicting current and future weather patterns.
That’s why Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent decision to delay the release of 700,000 acre-feet of water, enough to supply nearly 7 million people for a year, from state reservoirs into the Sacramento-San Joaquin-River Delta was the right call. Snowpack from early storms can be lost to dry, hot weather later this spring.
Recall April 2021. The Sierra Nevada snowpack, source of about one-third of the state’s freshwater, stood at 59% its average size at the beginning of the month. Not good, but not terrible either. Five weeks later, state officials shocked the water world by announcing the snowpack had mostly vanished — vaporized or absorbed by weeks of unusually warm weather and dry soil conditions before it could run off into our reservoirs. By May 11, the snowpack was just 6% its average size. This was unprecedented and triggered a drought emergency.
The whiplash was even more severe in 2022. A series of enormous atmospheric rivers early in the season swelled the snowpack to 174% of its Jan. 1 average. However, January, February and March 2022 proved to be the driest three-month stretch in over a century. By May 11, the once-mighty snowpack had withered to just 22% of average.
Today, with the Sierra snowpack flush from a historically cold and wet January, some environmentalists have expressed disappointment in the governor’s executive order requesting delay of additional environmental flows into the Delta. But as we’ve seen the past two years, an early snowpack no longer guarantees reliable runoff in the hot summer months. Additionally, state wildlife officials believe the delay will not result in unreasonable impacts to fish and wildlife, thanks partly to significant freshwater flushing from the January storms. Outflows to the Delta reached the established standards on only 18 days between 2019 and the start of 2023. Outflows exceeded those standards every single day this January, and for 12 continuous days outflows were three-to-five times higher than the standard.
The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is the largest estuary on the west coast of the Americas and the namesake of our region. That’s why the Bay Area Council co-chaired the successful Measure AA campaign to raise $500 million for tidal marsh restoration projects and why I testified before Congress to secure additional federal EPA funding for San Francisco Bay restoration work. But short of air to breathe, access to safe, reliable and affordable drinking water is the most basic and fundamental building block of a prosperous state.
California is in the midst of profound changes in its natural environment. With the past becoming a less reliable tool for predicting current and future weather patterns, it’s becoming increasingly important that the state’s most critical natural resource decisions be made considering on-the-ground conditions rather than rigid formulas conjured in and for a world that no longer exists. Following three years of severe drought, the governor’s executive order to delay environmental releases from state reservoirs for several weeks is a common sense response to our changed climate.
Jim Wunderman is president and CEO of the Bay Area Council.
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