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As storms dump rain on California, most goes to the sea. Why?


(The Center Square) – Thanks to a second year of torrential rains, California has already passed its annual rainfall average. But with decades-long shortfalls in water storage expansion, most of that water is going right to the sea, leaving the state ill-prepared for the next drought in the typical drought-storm cycle that has long-defined the state’s climate.

California experienced 31 atmospheric rivers during the 2022-2023 October-March rainy season, leaving the state drought-free for the first time in three years. As a result of the drought’s end, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power finally ended its 13-month water restrictions limiting outdoor watering to just two times per week. Despite the drought’s official end, everyday Californians have continued to curtail their water consumption, with CalMatters reporting a 6% decline in urban water use since July 2021.

After the most recent set of rains, California’s reservoirs are rapidly reaching capacity, with the San Francisco Chronicle reporting the state’s largest 48 reservoirs are at 70% of overall capacity and 118% of typical water levels for this time of year. In advance of expected storms, some reservoirs are safely releasing water while they can to make sure they have enough capacity to prevent harmful flooding.

Even though California is experiencing greater-than typical rain, two main issues are holding back utilization of the state’s existing water infrastructure. One, much of this rain is falling in coastal areas where there is little opportunity to capture and utilize said rain — water that falls on or near the coast runs into the ocean. Two, snow, not rain, is the single greatest tool for supplying California with water, and the state is still in a “snow drought” with Sierra Nevada mountain range snowpack, which supplies California with 30% of its water — coming in between 70% and 80% of historic levels.

But beyond rainfall concentration and snow shortfalls, another factor is the fact that the state has not built a new reservoir with over one million acre-feet of water storage since 1978 despite the state’s population doubling since then. Meanwhile, California Governor Gavin Newsom is spearheading the largest dam removal in national history in an effort to improve salmon and steelhead trout fisheries.

“We can build storage above dams we’ve already built, in between structures they already have, without impacting fisheries,” said State Sen. Brian Dahle, R-Bieber, to The Center Square.

Though Newsom has supported the dam removal efforts, he has nonetheless adopted policies to accelerate construction of state infrastructure projects, including the proposed 1.5 million acre-feet Sites Reservoir.

Last year, Newsom signed an executive order giving 270 days for the approval of the the environmental impact report holding up Sites. Sites is funded by 2014’s Proposition 1 and will hold enough water to supply 3 million households for one year. However, Proposition 1 has yet to yield a single project due to activists’ continued use of California Environmental Quality Act to hold up construction in courts.