Environment Report: Why a Dry Year Is Not Such a Bad Thing - Voice of San Diego

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Environment Report: Why a Dry Year Is Not Such a Bad Thing

Oroville sues California over the dam, a personal trip to the Devil’s Golf Course, and more in our biweekly roundup of the region’s environmental news.
Lake Mead, on the Colorado River, supplies the Southwestern United States and Mexico. / Image via Shutterstock

The news, as it often does, has been bouncing back and forth from extreme to extreme — historic drought, historic snowfall, historic fires, fatal floods and mudslides. That’s the nature of California’s climate.

A common saying among water officials is that there’s no average year in California. Of course, when they add up rainfall and snowfall records, there is an average. But that average obscures savage fluctuations between bone-dry years and years of floods and landslides.

Because of this, Californians read dizzying and seemingly contradictory stories. One day, we need rain or else there will be fires. Another day, the rain caused the grass to grow, and now the grass is a fire hazard.

Officials aren’t sure yet how this winter will end, but it’s shaping up to be a dry one. In Northern California, there’s far less snow than average. San Diego, according to the local water authority, has only received about 3 percent of its average seasonal rainfall, as measured at the downtown airport.

Having just come out of a drought that put the whole state on edge — and left folks on the East Coast wondering if California was even habitable — you think we’d want all the rain we can get.

But there are a few reasons that a dry year may not be so bad, all things being equal.

“Definitely, we don’t wish for a dry year and we really can’t predict if a water year is going to be wet or dry,” said Jeanine Jones, the California Department of Water Resources’ interstate resources manager. “But if we are going to have a dry year, this could be a better time for it, because we just wrapped up a very wet 2017.”

She laid out three reasons for why a dry 2018 may not be such a bad thing:

First, as we’ve seen in Montecito, too much rain can cause deadly mudslides. The recent fires likely denuded the landscape and destroyed the plants that hold dirt in place.

Second, because the Sierra got a lot of snow last winter, we have a lot of water saved up. There’s also the water in Lake Mead, the reservoir formed by the Hoover Dam. It comes from the Colorado River, but because we had a wet winter inside the state, we didn’t need to import as much and instead we got to save it for later. (Here’s a refresher on where San Diego’s water comes from.)

Third, because of ongoing repairs at Oroville Dam, it would be great to avoid the sort of massive runoff that nearly caused a catastrophe last year. Jones said if the state didn’t have to use the dam’s spillway, the community around the dam would certainly rest easier.

Jones is on a larger mission to enhance the government’s meteorological capabilities. Right now, we have a very limited ability to predict the weather. The further out we go, the less reliable our predictions.

There are also long-term planning problems caused by climate change. Scientists have a good sense of the kinds of things that may happen — on average. For instance, while the amount of precipitation in Northern California may not change, more water could fall as rain than snow. But scientists don’t know exactly where things will happen. Climate change modelling can estimate what will happen from region to region, but not zip code to zip code.

It’s odd to hope for a dry year. It would be bad if one is followed by another and another, but right now a dry year may not be such a bad thing.

In the end, perhaps we should wish nature could follow the advice some of us give ourselves: Everything in moderation, including moderation.

In Other News

The Padres are installing a giant solar array at Petco Park. (Union-Tribune)

The Del Mar Fairgrounds last month agreed to capture runoff from its property that was likely contributing to high levels of bacteria in a nearby river, a creek, the San Dieguito Lagoon and coastal waters. Local environmental groups had sued.

Encinitas became the fifth city in San Diego County to set 100 percent renewable electricity as a goal. (Patch)

Oroville sued the Department of Water Resources over the crisis at the local dam. According to the Sacramento Bee, the lawsuit says the state “neglected dam safety because of ‘undue influence’ by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and other State Water Project member agencies that store water behind the dam and pay for its operation. This influence, which began when Lester Snow was DWR director, contributed to postponement or cancellation of maintenance projects.” Snow, who used to head the San Diego County Water Authority, told the paper he was “kind of shocked” by those allegations. (Sacramento Bee)

Imperial Beach, which is known for its aggressive environmental activism, adopted a resolution last week opposing offshore drilling, something that has become easier under the Trump administration. The resolution doesn’t have much more than symbolic power.

From the Actual Environment

For New Year’s — which seems like forever ago — I took off with some friends to camp near Death Valley.

The Devil’s Golf Course, located within Death Valley National Park. / Photo by Ry Rivard

The land is pretty great and it wasn’t hot in late December. Most of the group had never been there, so we hit the usual spots — the lowest point in North America at Badwater Basin, the shard-like ground at the so-called Devil’s Golf Course, and the crazy collage of rocks at Artist’s Palette.

But the most incredible thing I saw wasn’t easy to photograph. That was a halo around the near-full moon, which is caused by moonlight passing through ice crystals in Earth’s atmosphere.

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