California’s recent rainstorms            

From December 26 to January 17, the Bay Area and entire state of California have seen massive rains from 9 atmospheric rivers.  These storms have resulted in at least 20 deaths, 30K+ evacuations, and caused major flooding, forced evacuations, prolonged power outages, landslides, infrastructure damage and more.  President Biden declared the state a national disaster on January 1th, helping channel aid to hard hit areas.

Cumulative rainfall during the period ranged from 40+ inches in some Bay Area coastal regions to nearly a foot in eastern parts of the Bay Area. The good news is that water levels in California reservoirs are rising toward historical averages, and the Sierra snowpack (water equivalent) is above the seasonal average. While the recent rains moved the state out the drought red zone, 90 percent of the state is still classified in some shade of amber, a less severe drought level, at least for now.   


So, the present drought picture is less bleak compared with three months ago, but it is hardly resolved. In fact, climate whiplash, shorthand for the radical swing from super dry to super wet, is projected to continue.

A tale of two climates – super dry and super wet

Wet winters and dry summers are natural characteristics of California’s climate. History over the millennia also shows a large amount of variation in weather patterns, with periods of severe drought and periods of extreme wetness. 

 When more heat is added to the Earth’s atmosphere, it further increases weather variability. Burning fossil fuels for transportation, buildings, and industry generates greenhouse gases that form a blanket around the earth, trapping air and raising temperatures. This turbocharges weather variability and intensity, increasing the likelihood of both extreme rainstorms and extreme drought conditions. 

 Atmospheric rivers are the main cause of the raging rainstorms experienced in California. They are born in the warm tropical waters of the Pacific Ocean and release large amounts of rain as the weather systems move eastward across the state. Scientific research cites evidence that human-caused climate change is increasing the severity of these storms.

During a drought like the one California experienced in recent years, the hardened soil is like a dry sponge and cannot absorb water as quickly as a moister sponge.  So, when a quick heavy rainstorm hits, water not absorbed by the soil, runs off to other places. Cascading storm water runoff can cause flooding and landslides. These conditions are intensified where wildfires have recently burned down trees, dried out soil is exposed, and where buildings are in flood zones. 

Resilience for weathering the elements. 

While the recent rains and flooding may not have been quite as severe as the 1862 California flood, they are still a stark reminder of the powerful forces of nature. Planning and preparing for extreme environmental events needs to be the norm. Much like earthquake and fire preparedness planning, there are steps you can take to better respond to extreme weather. These measures along with supporting critical infrastructure improvements (and GHG reductions) will help increase community resilience in the face of extreme downpours and droughts going forward.

Weatherproof your home for the remaining winter season

  • Clean debris out the gutters so that they don’t overflow in heavy rains and cause flooding in unwanted places. Cleaning gutters is also a prudent fire prevention measure.
  • Remove debris blocking water drainage pathways around your home.
  • Identify areas where intense storm water might enter your home or flood low lying areas. Protect these areas with sandbags. 
  • Get help as needed with bigger projects such as tree trimming, erosion control, etc.
  • Follow weather forecasts and predictions, which are quite good, thanks to real-time sensors, monitoring, and analytics technology. Take early actions to prepare for storms. 


Image: https://lovelygreens.com/rain-chain-ideas/ 

 Create a rain garden or start rainwater harvesting

Rain gardens and rainwater harvesting are among the popular landscaping trends in 2023. Explore how they can be used for supplementing water use, saving money, and extending the community water supply.  Here is an overview, courtesy of Contra Costa Water District.

  • Rain gardens are designed to move rainwater collected from your roof or driveway to a low area in your garden allowing it time to soak into the soil. The soil beneath your garden is like a giant sponge, storing water for your plants and reducing the amount you need to run your sprinklers or drip irrigation during the summer.
  • Rainwater harvesting is a technique for collecting, storing, and using rainwater for landscape irrigation and other uses. The rainwater is collected from various hard surfaces such as rooftops and/or other manmade aboveground hard surfaces in barrels or cisterns to use later for irrigation.

 More ways to save and use water wisely

East Bay Municipal Utility District offers these friendly water conservation reminders.

Reducing waste saves water and money

  • Run full loads of laundry and dishes.
  • Turn on the tap only when you need to rinse. Don’t let the water run unnecessarily when you brush your teeth, lather up, shave or wash dishes.
  • Take shorter showers…this also saves energy from heating the water
  • Turn off irrigation in the winter. During the growing season, irrigate early or late in the day (before 6 am or after 9 pm).
  • Examine sprinklers and adjust them so they water the plants, not the walls or sidewalk.
  • Use a broom, not a hose, to clean debris off driveways and sidewalks.
  • Wash your car using a bucket and sponge, not a hose. Better yet, use a commercial car wash that recycles their wash water.
  • Use a pool cover to reduce evaporation

Find and fix water leaks

  • Use dye tabs to find toilet leaks. Leaks are usually caused by worn out flapper valves, easily replaced with a trip to the hardware store.
  • Replace worn out washers in faucets to stop drips and leaks.
  • Check your outdoor irrigation equipment for leaks. Run through all the stations to look for broken or misadjusted heads.

 Install water efficient fixtures and appliances

  • Fixtures – faucets, showerheads, toilets
  • Appliances - dishwasher, washing machine, water heater
  • More conservation devices

Smart technology for precision watering and monitoring

  • Install a self-adjusting irrigation controller and a drip irrigation system
  • Use digital apps for monitoring water usage and early detection of leaks

Smart design for outdoor areas

  • Convert your thirsty lawn to a sustainable landscape.
  • Select drought-tolerant plants better adapted to the local climate.
  • Use permeable surfaces instead of hardscapes so that more water can be absorbed underground.

 Visit your water district website for more tips, resources, and rebates

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  • Wonderful article and tips, Liza!
    • Thank you!
  • Liza, great job on providing so much helpful information on a complex and confounding topic!
    • Thanks, glad you found it helpful!
  • Liza,

    This is a very detailed lesson on all things drought and water conservation. Thank you so much.
    • You're welcome. Glad you found it helpful.
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