Happy 2021! Here’s to a New Water Year!

by Jay Lund

2020 was terrible, and as a water year (WY), October 2019 – September 2020, it is over.  A dry winter (drier than 2014-2015 in Sac. Valley), COVID-19, deep recession and unemployment, wildfires, racial violence and unrest, extreme high temperatures, water documents disappearing from State of California websites, and finally a very unpresidential debate.  (Fortunately, no major earthquakes.)

We happily ring out this year and hope for a better 2021! (… although it doesn’t seem to be improving just yet)

As we leave 2020, the soils are dry (and ashen) and most reservoirs and aquifers have been somewhat drawn down by the dry year.  Most major water storage reservoirs have below average storage, but some are above average.  We enter WY 2021 with less stored water than when we entered 2020.

What should we look forward to in the new Water Year 2021?

  1. Will 2021 be wetter?  Wetter would be better.
    1. If the new water year begins wet, it will be a great relief for folks living in rural areas, and all Californians who breathe.  A wetter year overall should bring a shorter and hopefully less intense fire season for the year. 
    2. Wetter years also better refill reservoirs and aquifers for use in the coming year, and future droughts.  Some refilling of aquifers is essential for many critically-overdrafted aquifers to comply with California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and soften future reductions in groundwater pumping.
  2. Water, wind, and fire?  During WY 2020, we saw unusually tight and varied connections between water and wildfire conditions.  Tighter connections between precipitation and fire potential seem likely to persist until forest conditions change.  Fire budgets, preparations, and insurance might be usefully contingent on annual water conditions.
  3. Will 2021 be the year of voluntary environmental flow agreements?  If some of 2020’s major distractions subside, perhaps there is more hope.  A second dry year might further focus attention. Ecosystems don’t seem to be getting any healthier.  Regulatory uncertainty without such agreements might hinder or skew some water infrastructure investments might be insufficient without agreements or more certain regulations on environmental flows.
  4. Will 2021 be another dry year?  We have already had one dry year.  California’s larger water system usually needs at two dry years for a drought.  A single dry year can usually be accommodated with reservoir storage and some additional groundwater pumping, but longer droughts require more groundwater pumping, and increase shortages to human and ecosystem uses.  Additional dry years deepen shortages for ecosystems and humans, and increase risks of species extirpations, with warmer conditions exacerbating this situation. It might be time to dust off or prepare drought management plans for agencies, water projects, and ecosystems.
  5. How is SGMA going?  As SGMA deadlines get close, it becomes less likely that overdrafted basins will be rescued by a series of wet years, resulting in more need to curtail groundwater pumping to achieve SGMA goals. Is SGMA implementation moving forward sufficiently?
  6. How are the fish and native ecosystems?  The conditions of native fishes have not greatly improved since the end of the last drought.  This weak condition makes ecosystem impacts more likely if we have additional dry years and raises the importance of more aggressively improving ecosystem conditions in wetter (and all) years. (Durand et al 2020)
  7. How many rural community residents receive improved drinking water supplies?  This will be a continuing problem, and probably a worsening problem if 2021 is dry.
  8. Continued distractions?  Perhaps the greatest uncertainty for the new water year is whether the many distractions to effective science and policy-making will continue.  With the onset of deeper drought conditions, COVID and political disruptions could damage the water system’s usually effective abilities to respond and adapt to drought.

2020 demonstrates the diverse and changing challenges facing California, with deep implications for water and environmental management.  In 2021, we need to better organize how we will learn and explore how to manage water and ecosystems in California with profoundly changing conditions for decades to come.  We need to prepare for this future.

Further Reading

CDEC, Reservoir storages, http://cdec.water.ca.gov/reportapp/javareports?name=RES

Durand, J., et al., Drought and the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, 2012–2016: Environmental Review and Lessons, CaliforniaWaterBlog.com, August 2, 2020

Escriva-Bou, A., J. Lund, J. Medellin-Azuara, and T. Harter,How reliable are Groundwater Sustainability Plans?, CaliforniaWaterBlog.com,May 10, 2020

Horberry, M. (2020), “After Wildfires Stop Burning, a Danger in the Drinking Water,” New York Times, 2 October 2020.

Sommer, T., Schreier, B., Conrad, J. L, Takata, L., Serup, B., Titus, R., Jeffres, C., Holmes, E. and Katz, J. (2020). Farm to Fish: Lessons from a Multi-Year Study on Agricultural Floodplain Habitat. San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science, 18(3). doi: https://doi.org/10.15447/sfews.2020v18iss3art4

Stone, K. and R. Gailey, Economic Tradeoffs in Groundwater Management During Drought, CaliforniaWaterBlog.com, June 10, 2019

Jay Lund is Co-Director of UC Davis’ Center for Watershed Sciences, where he is also a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

About jaylund

Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Director, Center for Watershed Sciences University of California - Davis
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