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Sacramento fiddles while 31.7 percent of California is in moderate drought or worse
Dennis Wyatt RGB
Dennis Wyatt

Several inches of snow fell over the weekend on Sonora Pass. The temperature Monday morning in the Northern San Joaquin Valley dipped to 33 degrees.

If you think this is nothing to worry about, guess again.

Appearances — and assumptions — can be deceiving.

As of Monday, 31.7 percent of California was in moderate drought including the mid-Sierra where you will find Sonora Pass and the headwaters of their Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers that give life to the Northern San Joaquin Valley. Stanislaus and Merced counties are in moderate drought based on the US Department of Agriculture Drought Monitor.

Most of San Joaquin County is part of the 22.9 percent of the state’s landmass that is in severe drought. The entire Sacramento Valley is part of the 12.7 percent of California that is in extreme drought.

It may be cold and snow may have fallen in the Sierra but we could be heading toward big trouble. And as we’ve come to expect from Sacramento, they’ve been asleep at the wheel.

Six years ago last week, California voters approved a $7.5 billion water bond. Proposition 1 was approved by 67.3 percent of the voters.

Passage came in the middle of the longest California drought in modern history that lasted 376 weeks. It started on December 2011 and ended in March 2019.

Dendrochronology — the study of tree rings — thanks to carbon dating points to the odds of being high we are indeed entering another extended drought period. The science points to mega-drought periods of 50 years plus with short one to two-year breaks being the norm for The West with a 200-year period ending in the 1970s having been abnormally wet.

The last major water storage project built in California was Oroville Dam in 1968. That’s when the state had 19 million people — 21 million less than today.

Two years later a man many incorrectly assumed was the anti-environmentalist — Gov. Ronald Reagan — killed off the Dos Rios Reservoir proposed for the Eel River in Mendocino County. The dam at 730 feet — 40 feet shorter than Oroville Dam — would have created the state’s largest reservoir at 5.7 million-acre feet. Its surface area would have been larger than that of Shasta and Oroville lakes combined.

Dos Rios Reservoir deserved to be killed. There are more effective ways to pad California’s cushion against drought to sustain fish flows, urban uses, and agricultural.

Two key projects that the bond measure was passed to help fund, Sites Reservoir and Temperance Flat Reservoir, have stalled. Without the public breathing down their neck in a severe drought, the state has managed to treat the reservoirs as back burner issues.

While they couldn’t have been built in time to helps us through the current situation if it morphs into a sustained drought, they could be critical in helping the people of this state weather the next drought as well as the droughts after that.

Building any reservoir is problematic for a host of obvious reasons. That said, Sites Reservoir 10 miles west of Maxwell nestled in the Coastal Range foothills of Colusa County is the least problematic.

It is designed to serve as an “off-stream” storage facility that can hold 1.8 million-acre feet, 400,000 acre feet less than the New Melones Reservoir on the Stanislaus River. It would function much like the state’s largest existing off-stream reservoir, the 1.2-million-acre foot San Luis Reservoir west of Los Banos.

Sites would take excessive winter runoff from the Sacramento River. By doing so it would reduce flood risks downstream as well as store “excess water” for use when needed to sustain fish flows and keep water flowing to urban taps and farmland.

For a state that has managed to swell to 40 million people, create the most productive farmland on earth, and sustaining year-round river flows by controlling and storing water, our elected leaders act like they have no clue of the need to improve and invest in major renovations of our water infrastructure.

The Oroville Dam scare in February 2017 that sent 190,000 people fleeing for their lives in genuine fear the dam could collapse, has not triggered a major investment in retrofitting or strengthen other existing dams. Spending $100 billion on a watered down version of a bullet train may seem cutting edge techie but it does little good for Californians to be able to zip from San Francisco to Los Angeles in three hours for $100 per person for a one-way ticket if we run out of water.

There is little doubt we still have a ways to go with water conservation. Farmers got the message years ago given they pay dearly for not using water efficiently whether it is from huge surface water irrigation bills or massive electric bills to pump groundwater. Our per capita of water consumption has plunged in most urban areas of the state after the 1975-1977 drought provided California a wake-up call that we subsequently slept through for the next 45 years.

Cities — including those in the Northern San Joaquin Valley —need to institute an outright ban on lawns in front yards of new homes and require the removal of lawns when existing homes sell and replace from yards with water miserly xeriscape. Watering lawns that consist of grass non-native to California suck up almost half of water that cities in the Central Valley consume.

There is little doubt Sacramento needs to get its act together.

Meanwhile Valley cities can protect local water supplies and extend them during droughts by outlawing front yard lawns in new projects.

Better yet, they could encourage developers to follow the example of River Islands at Lathrop and use reclaimed water — in the planned community’s case it is storm water run-off and the high water table of non-potable water seeping from the San Joaquin River that it borders — to reduce the use of precious and expensive drinking water for irrigating landscaping.