The massive, bomb-cyclone-fueled storm set to unleash on California on Wednesday — dumping more rain and snow across much of the already-soaked state while whipping it with winds as high as 70 mph — illuminates some of the underlying climate and environmental issues confronting state lawmakers, who return to Sacramento today to recommence the 2023 legislative session.
The looming storm — which could be followed by even more atmospheric rivers, blanketing California with rain and snow well into next week — comes on the heels of a weekend tempest that caused at least two deaths, breached three levees in the Sacramento Valley and forced power outages and road closures.
The sustained onslaught of storms could further strain California’s elaborate system of flood protections, which in the Central Valley alone protect an estimated 1.3 million people and $223 billion worth of property, CalMatters’ Julie Cart and Alastair Bland report.
It could also increase pressure on state lawmakers to invest more money in flood protection — a potentially tough sell as California stares down a projected $24 billion budget deficit.
$30 Billion to Protect From Catastrophic Flooding
A state board last month recommended an investment of as much as $30 billion over the next 30 years to protect the Central Valley from catastrophic flooding exacerbated by climate change. California currently spends $48 million annually on flood protection operations, though the state and federal governments are in the midst of a multi-year, multibillion-dollar project to upgrade flood defenses in the Sacramento region.
- Gary Lippner, the state Department of Water Resources’ deputy director of flood management and dam safety: “The investments we’ve made to the flood system have absolutely helped. … I don’t anticipate … there to be emergency management needs” from the current storm system.
- However, conditions could escalate to a “worst-case scenario” under “an unrelenting series of storms,” said Michael Anderson, a state Department of Water Resources climatologist.
That California is confronting floods amid a historic drought is partially due to the “whiplash” of the state’s “semi-arid climate,” Jeffrey Mount, a water specialist at the Public Policy Institute of California, told Cart and Bland: The state just experienced its “three driest years on record, and, if this year continues, we will get a year like 2017, the wettest on record.”
But the flooding also reflects that California’s “ability to store surface water is limited. … We have not figured out how to better take advantage of these wet years to get us through the dry,” Mount said.
In California’s first snow survey of the season Tuesday, officials announced that the Sierra Nevada snowpack — which provides about a third of the state’s water — was at 174% of its historical statewide average for that date, marking the best statewide start to the snow season in 40 years. But conditions can change quickly: After record rains and heavy snowfall from October to December 2021, California in 2022 logged its driest January, February, and March on record.
And the state is increasingly struggling to accurately model how much water it can expect from the Sierra Nevada snowpack. Last spring, its projections were so far from reality that reservoirs were left with far less water than expected, highlighting the urgency of reforming the process, as CalMatters’ Rachel Becker reported.
- Stay up to date on the impacts of this week’s storm by bookmarking CalMatters’ drought and water tracker.
Beyond flood protections, water storage projects and snowpack measurements, another issue likely to confront state officials is seismic safety — brought to the forefront by last month’s 6.4 magnitude earthquake in Humboldt County, which was hit by another 5.4 magnitude temblor on New Year’s Day.
About the Author
Emily Hoeven writes the daily WhatMatters newsletter for CalMatters. Her reporting, essays, and opinion columns have been published in San Francisco Weekly, the Deseret News, the San Francisco Business Times, the Flathead Beacon, the Daily Pennsylvanian, and the Mercury News.
CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom committed to explaining California policy and politics.