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Another wet year is predicted in California. Officials say this time they’re better prepared

A road in Woodlake, Calif., is closed as rainfall produces flooding during the series of atmospheric rivers.
Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado
A road in Woodlake, Calif., is closed as rainfall produces flooding during the series of atmospheric rivers.

FRESNO, Calif. – Water leaders across California are beginning to prepare for another wet winter, as a new water year got underway this week.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the state’s reservoirs are the fullest they’ve been at the start of a water year in 40 years. And, with an El Niño weather pattern looking more and more likely, so is the possibility for a lot of rain in the months ahead.

But with months to go before winter rains begin in earnest, it’s unclear how strong El Niño will be – and how much it will disrupt seasonal temperatures, winds, and other weather patterns.

There are “a lot of pieces in play for some new extremes we haven’t seen in decades,” explained state climatologist Michael Anderson during a press briefing this week.

What is certain is that water leaders are preparing now for potential flooding.

Flood preparations in place

Agencies hit by floods last year are repairing infrastructure such as levees and berms, and dam operators are ensuring that spillways are ready to be activated.

The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) is “starting this water year with more flood fight materials on hand than last year,” said Gary Lippner, DWR’s Deputy Director of Flood Management and Dam Safety.

That includes 2.4 million more sandbags, he said, as well as a portable plastic barrier known as muscle wall that can keep water at bay.

“These prepositioned materials are intended to support local and county agencies in protecting flood systems and critical infrastructure,” Lippner added.

The state is also continuing to approve projects to capture floodwater for uses including storage and groundwater recharge.

This past winter, following a series of executive orders signed by Governor Gavin Newsom that allowed for emergency floodwater diversion, “a total of 390,817 acre-feet of potential floodwaters were diverted to protect communities,” said Paul Gosselin, DWR’s Deputy Director of Sustainable Groundwater Management.

“The ability to divert floodwaters proved critical for public safety,” he added.

Gosselin said another 1.2 million acre-feet of water storage and recharge projects have been permitted so far under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

It remains unclear how many of those were actually used this past winter.

State and federal officials are also holding county-by-county meetings, including in the San Joaquin Valley, centered around preparing for flood emergencies.

Lessons learned from the Tulare Lake basin

For DWR Director Karla Nemeth, the resurgence of Tulare Lake in Kings County last spring served as a wake up call.

“We learned that there is an enormous value to regional flood planning, even simply as a communication, too, for smaller communities,” she said.

The refilling of the lake exposed the fractured, disjointed and at times chaotic local flood response that exists in the Tulare Lake Basin.

Nemeth issued a warning not to assume the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada will melt as slowly as it did last spring.

“We all have a tendency to say ‘we survived that, we survived 400% snowpack conditions,’” Nemeth said. “But there are always ways in which mother nature can throw us a curveball, and we shouldn’t expect that necessarily again.”

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.