Capitol Alert

What El Niño could mean for California: 5 takeaways

Video: NOAA assesses El Nino's potential for 2015-16 winter

Forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provide possibilities and probabilities associated with the potential impact of the weather phenomenon known as El Nino on California, the western U.S. and the country in general d
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Forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provide possibilities and probabilities associated with the potential impact of the weather phenomenon known as El Nino on California, the western U.S. and the country in general d

A Wednesday state Senate hearing dove into a topic on the mind of many Californians, examining how an anticipated El Niño surge of wetness could affect residents and force a pivot from drought preparedness to flood response.

“It’s definitely weather and climate whiplash,” Jet Propulsion Laboratory researcher William Patzert testified, characterizing the weather pattern as “the great wet hope” that is now “too big to fail.”

While the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee hearing in Van Nuys focused on the Los Angeles area, here are some broader takeaways:

It’s all about the snowpack: Abundant rainfall would help replenish diminished water supplies, but the real drought-buster would be more snow in the Sierra and other places where melting snow feeds rivers and reservoirs. For Los Angeles, “what really matters is that we get huge snowpack on the Colorado river watershed” that would refill dwindling Lake Mead, Patzert testified. But forecasts calling for warmer than average temperatures bode ill.

“More likely than not the drought will still remain even if we receive significant rain this summer,” Salomon Miranda of the California Department of Water Resources testified.

Plenty of plain pain: One in five Californians lives in a flood plain, Miranda said, and “many billions of dollars in assets” lie in the path of potential inundation. The Sacramento area is especially exposed, and Southern California’s topography and climate makes it particularly vulnerable to coastal flooding, flash floods and tsunamis.

Communities around California are gearing up with the state’s assistance, Salomon said, with the Department of Water Resources training around 1,200 people on flood response and having sand bags, plastic sheeting and other materiel “strategically prepositioned” throughout the state.

Coastal communities on the frontline: Sea levels have risen about eight inches over the last century and a half, Patzert testified, and shrinking beaches provide “the unequivocal proof.” Some of the most visible consequences of El Niño will fall on the coastline.

“Get ready down in Malibu and all along the Orange County coast for a big battering,” Patzert said.

From fire to flood: Parched periods actually exacerbate flood risk. The drought has led to some of the most destructive fire seasons on record. When rains follow flames, the scorched ground is less able to absorb water. Deluges and mudslides can follow.

“We have already begun to witness this deadly combination,” Miranda said, pointing to flash floods this month in an area that had been ravaged by the 2013 Powerhouse Fire.

Dirt-y business: Sediment has built up in many of the state’s reservoirs, limiting the free space to absorb rainwater. A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers official noted that scooping out sediment is often a matter of money.

“The solution requires funding,” said Richard Leifield, chief of engineering for the Corps’ Los Angeles District. Sediment is “not reducing the flood control capacity, but it does reduce the potential water conservation capacity.”

Jeremy B. White: 916-326-5543, @CapitolAlert

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