The false security of too much water
Saturday was a meteorological marvel in the Sonoma Valley, with temperatures in the 70s, blue skies and a feeling in the air that spring may have finally sprung. Meanwhile, the liquid largesse from all the recent rain was still sluicing down Sonoma Creek with enough volume to keep a couple of whitewater kayaks afloat and the reservoir at Sonoma Developmental Center was full to the brim and dumping a modest flow down its spillway. Most importantly, the Sierra snowpack stood at near record levels - Squaw Valley received more than 57 feet, Boreal is above 64 feet - and the water content banked in the high country is 165 percent of normal.
Closer to home, Lake Sonoma's water supply pool stands at about 109 percent of capacity, and the pool at Lake Mendocino is at 111 percent.
That news could lead to the logical conclusion that our water worries are a thing of the past. And that would be a mistake. Kirkwood Ski Resort hasn't had this much snow since 1982, and that came about midway between two of California's worst droughts. The excess water of 1982-83 was of no use when the skies stopped dumping from 1987 through 1989.
That's because, unlike the banks we keep our money in, which - in theory at least - maintain enough reserve capital to carry them through financial droughts, our water bank, the Sierra snowpack, pretty much exhausts its capital every season and has to depend on fresh deposits from Mother Nature. After two or three years without enough deposits, all the capital is used up and the whole system slides toward fluid bankruptcy.
Right now we have the illusion of a luxurious amount of water. But it's still an illusion and California, even at this very wet moment, is - like most of the arid West - living beyond its water means.
And the water capital we do have, the water reserves we bank, are not true reserves because we're already in deficit, we're still too often, for too long for the safety of numerous species of fish and the wildlife that depend on them. An ambitious plan to restore salmon flows to the San Joaquin River, which has been pumped literally dry in places to service Central Valley growers, threatens to fall apart under pressure from farm interests who last year declared war on a biological opinion governing necessary freshwater flows through the Delta.
And while the salmon fishing season opened on Saturday, with a projected Sacramento River fall run of 700,000 chinook, the winter run is still a major concern and coho salmon numbers are still in collapse. On the Russian River, the health of juvenile coho and steelhead trout is threatened in part by too much water from Lake Sonoma at the wrong time in the wrong place.
In the Colorado River watershed, a water-sharing pact among the seven basin states was predicated on water flows during an anomalous decade of wet weather. The basin couldn't support the demands placed on it and today Lake Mead and Lake Powel have reached nearly historic lows.
So as we rightfully celebrate the return of at least a temporary water abundance, it would be unwise and unsafe to mistake this hydrological blip as the norm.