January 27, 2017 1:00 PM

After drought, California urgently needs to focus on big picture of water management

California has largely emerged from five years of drought. This good news becomes better news if we move forward with better water management, which will prepare the state for the next drought, as well as floods.

Today, California has 112 percent of long-term average reservoir storage, 189 percent of average snowpack and more than 200 percent of average precipitation. That’s above 100 percent in all these categories for the first time in six years.

Reservoir storage is now 2 million acre feet – equivalent to about two full Folsom reservoirs – above the long-term average statewide. That’s up from being 3 million acre feet below average in October and 8 million acre feet below average last year. Thanks to California’s interconnected water system, most of California is no longer in a surface water drought.

But drought remains in many places, however. Santa Barbara’s water supply, Lake Cachuma, is at 15 percent of its normal storage for this time of year. Many groundwater basins in the San Joaquin Valley remain greatly overdrawn compared with their levels in 2011, before the drought. These aquifers will take years or decades to recover, given the San Joaquin Valley’s dry climate.

Some aquifers may never recover to pre-drought levels. Many farmers and rural communities will suffer dry wells and higher pumping costs for years. The state’s forests have suffered millions of tree deaths, and could require decades to recover. Some native fish populations, already in a precarious state, have been further depleted by the drought and will take years to recover with great effort and sacrifice.

California is normally a dry place, with some years that are drier than normal and some much wetter. With today’s wetter conditions, California must pivot its water management and policy from the frenzy of drought to balanced preparation for future droughts and floods.

With its dry climate, parts of California will receive less water than all users would like. In droughts, most areas must be prepared for deeper water shortages. To retain flexibility, balance and public confidence, “drought” actions should be reserved for drier years, with substantial conservation, but with less extreme measures in every year.

Lakes, rivers and a meadow during drought years compared to January 2017

What a difference an abundance of water makes. January 2017 saw a deluge of rain in Northern California. These images of Folsom Lake, Atascadero Lake, Lake Oroville, Echo Summit and the South Yuba River show what a difference the recent rain and snow make.

Video compiled by David Caraccio

The drought has focused attention on California’s long-standing problems of groundwater, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, ecosystem declines, infrastructure financing and rural community water supply. Groundwater, the Delta, aquatic ecosystems and financing are tightly linked. The drought provided substantial progress on organizing groundwater management, but progress ultimately involves these other problems.

Rural water supply is mostly a matter of financing and community organization, supported by state and county governments. Solutions will require sustained policy attention – and funding – as well as refocusing the state’s water agencies, with greater expectations from regional and local water agencies. Drought has accelerated progress, and follow-through is needed.

Solutions will require politically and financially difficult decisions with considerable uncertainties. However, it is deeply certain that much of California will need to adjust long-term expectations for water deliveries, water operations, costs and environmental sustainability.

The state needs more solid and transparent water accounting, better ecosystem management, some new infrastructure and more sustainable financing to support public safety, economic prosperity and environmental health goals. These changes will bring costs and opportunities for most water users and managers.

California must manage water every year in preparation for dry and drier years, even as we prepare for floods. It is time to move urgently to the bigger picture of water in California. More droughts are coming.

Jay Lund is the director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. He can be contacted at Follow him on Twitter at @jrlund113

Related stories from The Sacramento Bee

This is an Accelerated Mobile Page ⚡. See standard version.