After weeks of downpour, California is ‘dangerously unprepared’ for a wetter future

A man in a hoodie wades knee deep through a flooded street in Aptos, Calif.

As most California counties finally lift their flood warnings after a series of powerful storms brought severe flooding and at least 20 deaths, the state is now facing questions about whether its aging infrastructure can handle increasingly unpredictable weather.

Millions of people were at risk as the first of the storms, also known as atmospheric rivers, hit the state just after Christmas. That was followed by several more, the worst of which occurred over the weekend.

Entire communities were flooded throughout the state, including the city of Merced, downtown Los Angeles and Gilroy in the north. Sections of roads were washed away, and multiple levees failed. Toppled power lines also left tens of thousands without electricity, and a five-year-old child was swept away by floodwaters.

Rainfall records fell throughout the state, including in Los Angeles, where torrential rain broke a 130-year history by more than double. San Francisco had its wettest period since 1862.

California’s infrastructure is now at an inflection point. After multi-year droughts over the last two decades, the state watched as trillions of gallons of rainwater rushed straight into the Pacific Ocean during the most recent heavy rain storms. While it left the state’s main reservoirs fuller than they’ve been in months, it won’t be enough to stave off drought in the future.

Bigger and bolder solutions are needed.

Professor David Sedlak, Director of the Berkeley Water Center at the University of California, Berkeley, told Reckon that improvements are needed to deal with the threat of California’s boom and bust climate - years of drought followed by severe rainstorms.

“The infrastructure that exists in California to deal with floodwaters and also to provide drinking water to cities, it’s in reasonable shape for the climate that we’ve had, but it’s not really ready for the climate that we may have in the future,” he said. “This series of storms, even though we can’t say for certain that they were more intense due to climate change, is of historic duration and our infrastructure was not built to manage it. It needs an upgrade.”

In recent years, California isn’t the only place where storms have damaged local infrastructure. Tornadoes continue to routinely knock out power supplies in the Midwest and South. Last week, powerful storms and a series of tornadoes swept across parts of Alabama and Georgia, killing multiple people and knocking out power for 30,000.

Stronger and more frequent hurricanes endanger every aspect of municipal and state infrastructure on the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic coasts. The 2021 hurricane season was the third most active on record, producing four major hurricanes. Although much quieter, last year’s season saw one of the deadliest and most unpredictable hurricanes ever to hit Florida. Category 4 Hurricane Ian was also rare because it hit Florida from the west, a rare event only possible when water temperatures are warm enough.

In August, heavy rain caused the Pearl River in Mississippi to overflow, causing Jackson’s water system to shut down completely. All of the city’s 150,000 residents were without water for weeks. The system had been struggling for years because of a lack of funding and qualified staff. During the big freeze in early 2021, freezing temperatures caused the worst energy infrastructure failure in Texas history. It left millions without power and cost $200 billion in damage.

Wildfires on the west coast can also harm infrastructure. Fire strips the land of vegetation and leaves the ground unable to absorb water. With nowhere to go, the excess water can form mudflows, damaging roads, power lines, and other critical infrastructure, according to FEMA.

Dr. Elizabeth Carter, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Syracuse University, told Reckon that continued drought and water shortages could lead to disastrous consequences without the necessary infrastructure plan.

“Places more prone to drought can expect drought risks to get worse,” she said. “In the American Southwest, there needs to be a lot more collaboration about the use of limited groundwater reserves, and limited available surface water, between communities and even nations. We could be running into a kind of terminal water shortage in arid places that are highly developed if infrastructure isn’t improved.”

California’s biggest problem: drought and half-empty reservoirs

Not only can drought destroy runways, roads, rail lines and cause subsidence, which creates sinkholes, but it affects the water supply and quality.

According to Dr. Carter, it also creates a phenomenon known as hydrophobic soil. That’s when soil repels water rather than absorbing it. It’s common after sustained drought and is responsible for flash flooding during heavy rain.

“The soil acts the same in the wake of forest fires,” she added, referencing the extensive wildfires California has experienced in recent years. Directing and storing that water could alleviate drought and subsequent flash flooding in the future.

The recent torrential rain has gone some way to easing California’s water shortage, but not nearly enough to overcome three years of severe drought throughout the state. Last month, ahead of the storms, around 80% of California was in severe drought, according to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s drought monitoring website.

Currently, 40% of the state is still in severe drought.

The state’s reservoirs, historically low in the past few years, are slowly filling up, according to California’s drought monitor. Lake Shasta, the state’s largest with a 4.6 million acre-feet capacity, is currently at around 87% of its historical average water level. However, the lake is still below its average water level compared with 2020, 2019 and 2018, according to the California Department of Water Resources.

Some estimates claim that as much as 24 trillion gallons of water have fallen since the storms began, enough to fill lake Shasta over 90,000 times.

That perceived waste has reignited debate about how to best store rainwater and help the state avoid drought.

Professor Carter says there are realistically two options to help California and other places save rainwater.

“One is to create more storage facilities,” she said. “Reservoirs and underground pipelines, kind of like what the city of Chicago is doing. “The other thing, which is much less of an infrastructural intervention, is to try to promote healthy vegetation wherever possible.”

Healthy vegetation close to water sources is also known as riparian vegetation. It essentially acts like a sponge, allowing water to absorb into the soil instead of washing it away. Not only do these plants filter and recycle sediment, but they also raise the groundwater level - meaning the body of water can deliver more drinking water to reservoirs and other types of water storage.

Work on a new reservoir near Sacramento will start next year that will store water during drier periods. It will contain around 1.5 million acre-feet of water. In Los Angeles, city officials have committed to a $300-million-a-year project that would create hundreds of water capture projects over the next half-century.

That’s primarily because California is getting much wetter in places, according to a state report, which also said the state is “dangerously unprepared” for the future.

It’s unclear if California’s multibillion-dollar bet on its future climate can be replicated in other states. While the era of large-scale dam building has long passed, states must find alternative ways to adapt to a drier and wetter future or face the consequences.

“We know that we’re heavily dependent on water infrastructure for being healthy, happy, and sustaining communities,” said Dr. Carter. “We’re going to have to innovate to adapt our infrastructure and the way that we use water and the way that we respond to risk because of climate change.”

Christopher Harress

Christopher Harress |

Climate change reporter on the east and Gulf coasts.

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