El Niño is coming. Are we ready?

With the right policies and leadership, the upcoming weather season can be part of the answer for California’s water needs.

Kevin McCarthy
Oct 22, 2015 · Unlisted

The anticipation is building. Stories and news reports are popping up everywhere. Predictions and expectations fill coffee shops and social media. No, I’m not talking about the 2024 Olympics in Los Angeles. I am talking about El Niño. And, chances are that it will arrive this winter along with plenty of precipitation.

The winter months in California provide us with the rain and snow to support our way life for the whole year. As the eighth largest economy in the world, the most productive agricultural region in the country, and home to the technological revolution and millions of middle class families looking to live a free and prosperous life, California needs a secure and abundant water supply.

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Photo: Lake Isabella, Kern County, California

Unfortunately, four years of historic drought and decades of mismanaged water policy have threatened our water supply so much that communities are forced to ration usage. Some even have to rely on donated water because their supplies have been completely depleted. And beyond the humanitarian and economic hardship this drought has caused, our environment has also been impacted. Today, our soil is dry and our forests are thinned by the twin problems of fire and drought.

So it isn’t a surprise that predictions of El Niño were initially met with the hope that our drought might finally subside.

And with good reason.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts the current El Niño in the Pacific Ocean has a 95 percent chance of continuing through the 2015–2016 winter. NOAA goes on to state that this could be a strong El Niño, bringing heavy and much-need precipitation to our parched state in northern, central, and southern California.

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Source: NOAA, Three Month Outlook Precipitation Probability

While El Niño-related rain and snowpack will probably not end the drought, this much-needed water would be a crucial lifeline to Californians.

But El Niño also comes with great risks. As we saw last week, an unexpected storm rolled over the Central and Antelope Valleys, and the downpour of rain on the dry land caused mudslides onto the 5 through the Grapevine and along the 58, trapping hundreds of vehicles and halting travel and commerce. Tragically, it appears this storm has claimed its first casualty, and another man remains missing. Future heavy rains could cause even more damage.

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Photo: Nick Smirnoff / For Tehachapi News

So here we are, a couple months away from a possible godsend to our parched state that could quickly become a recipe for disaster. Now is the time for thoughtful planning and coordination. We need to be prepared to capitalize on the good from the storm and protect against the harm it may cause.

Defending against El Niño’s destruction

The storms of 1997 triggered flash floods and mudslides across California, causing $550 million in damage. This cycle’s effects may well be worse. Rainfall in 1997 was unusual even by El Niño standards, but unlike today, in 1997 California had not just spent four years battling the worst drought in a millennium. To respond to heavy rains compounded by years of drought, we must have a comprehensive plan. The question is, have our state and Federal governments developed or discussed that plan?

We need the state to coordinate with the Federal government now, ahead of El Niño, or response times to natural events could be unnecessarily delayed, causing damage and loss.

This week, we saw the California Highway Patrol and local fire crews react quickly, rescuing passengers and routing stranded motorists to Red Cross shelters for the night. Spontaneous acts of compassion by the citizens of Tehachapi, Mojave, and Lancaster helped many get out of the rain and back on their way. But instead of preparing, we were responding, and it would be irresponsible to merely respond to statewide flooding and natural disaster instead of preparing to prevent it.

Under the Stafford Act that Congress enacted in 1988 the Federal government has the ability to help states prepare for imminent storm threats — but only if the states request it. So has the state developed streamlined processes to do so should storms threaten to make landfall?

Separately, we must also ensure that our infrastructure is prepared for the coming storms. As NPR reported earlier this week, many of our state’s flood “off ramps” are from the early 1900’s. Are these old systems ready to handle El Niño? With the rivers dry and storms on the horizon, what needs to be done to ready our infrastructure for the potential deluge?

Rapid communication is also important. So how are we as a state and Federal government prepared to communicate the potential imminent threats of storms to our communities? The state of California must work with the Federal government and local communities to ensure people receive the fastest warning possible about impending flash floods and mudslides.

Making the most of El Niño

While it is important to prepare for potential mudslides and flooding, we must also remember that our constituents desperately need water.

Many of my colleagues in the House and I believe that Federal and state environmental policies and regulations have exacerbated California’s current water crisis. Instead of capturing water for human use and consumption, lawsuits and government regulations demand that we flush water out to the ocean.

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The House of Representatives has passed legislation to help provide more water to all Californians while maintaining protections for the environment. We remain committed to working with the Senate and Administration officials to enact long-term water policy to allow our state to continue to grow.

While no one can know for certain how much rain or snow could occur this winter, it is imperative that we maximize the benefits El Niño could bring to all Californians.

Absent the President signing legislation from Congress, our leaders should make sure the administration of current regulatory policy benefits people first, not fish.

That is why I have led my colleagues in the House and Senator Fuller has led her colleagues in the state legislature to question President Obama and Governor Brown on their water policies ahead of El Niño. We want to know: What plans do the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Marine Fisheries Service have in place to capture El Niño-related rain and snowpack for human use? Or will they just let all this usable water go to waste?

We ask these same questions to California government agencies, such as the Department of Water Resources, the California Fish and Wildlife Service, and the State Water Resources Control Board.

We have to ask these questions because in the past, various policy and regulatory impediments — including those associated with protecting fish — limited water exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to the people who needed it. But increasing water exports during times of storms is not only prudent, it’s bipartisan. Along with House Republicans, Senator Dianne Feinstein has agreed to the premise of increased pumping during winter storms.

Unfortunately, Federal bureaucrats fearful of lawsuits from environmentalists have refused to budge. If we want to make the most of El Niño, that needs to change.

Heavy rainfall can be a blessing or a curse depending on how we prepare for it today and use it when it comes. It will take diligent planning and communication to prepare for flooding and mudslides while also using El Niño to help everyone who has suffered under the drought. But with the right policies and leadership, the coming rain and snow can be part of the answer to, not the cause of, our challenges.

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