Drought or not, water conservation must remain the norm

Water from recent storms has turned the Yolo Bypass west of Sacramento into something resembling a lake.
Water from recent storms has turned the Yolo Bypass west of Sacramento into something resembling a lake. rbenton@sacbee.com

After five years of drought, California is in the midst of one of the wettest years on record.

The Sacramento River is swollen, the Yolo Bypass looks like a lake, Sierra snowpack is accumulating and large reservoirs are filling. And as inevitably happens when rain falls, local water agencies, San Diego’s among them, are calling on the state to lift restrictions on water use.

But the rainy season doesn’t end until April. Whether it keeps raining or not, April would be soon enough to make a declaration one way or another. Even if Gov. Jerry Brown does declare an end to the drought, the next dry spell could be upon the state before we know it. In part because of climate change, in part because of greater demands on water, Californians must not go back to water-wasting ways.

Most of the state, particularly where most people live, is perennially dry, and much of it is desert. With global warming, weather patterns will change and this state of almost 40 million people must adapt. By 2100, sea levels are predicted to rise by 17 to 66 inches, and “the frequency of extreme events such as droughts, heat waves, wildfires, and floods is expected to increase,” the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan independent think tank, said in a recent report.

As the mercury rises, more precipitation will fall as rain rather than snow, and the snowpack, upon which California long has depended, will diminish. That likely will increase the “frequency and magnitude of flooding and diminish water reserves in the Sierra,” the PPIC report said. Even if all greenhouse gas emissions ended today, “some of these changes would be unavoidable because the climate system changes slowly.”

Although California’s largest reservoirs are filling, one in Santa Barbara County is at only 11 percent of capacity. Groundwater, which kept many Central Valley orchards alive during the drought, has been depleted. As the PPIC said: “One wet year is not a drought buster. ... It would take many successive wet years – and more intentional groundwater capture and storage – to restore aquifers to the condition they were in before the onset of drought.”

Many people in Southern California are to be commended for their conservation efforts. The San Diego Water Authority, in particular, has added storage, built a desalination plant and persuaded homeowners to dramatically reduce use. With the rain that has fallen so far this season, it’s understandable that on Thursday, the authority urged the state to act in February to lift emergency conservation requirements.

But the Brown administration would be wise to wait to make any such declaration until at least April. And even if the five-year drought is over, water recycling and conservation must become second nature for Californians.