California has been experiencing plenty of flooding issues in the past few weeks due to atmospheric rivers. These phenomena are columns of condensed water vapor in the atmosphere that can produce devastating amounts of rain or snow.
If you are a flood protection professional in California and have recently thought, “Oh no, I need a crash course in atmospheric rivers,” you are not alone. Consider this a moment of mutual validation extended to my California flood family. We are in this together, so we need to get all the brain trusts, flood protection professionals, federal and state regulators, joint power authorities, and local maintaining agencies together to adapt and learn how to improve the resiliency of the entire flood protection system. Adaptive and dynamic management seems to be the answer, but the entire state needs to get behind this if we want it to work.
Flood “Control” is OUT
We all know we can only manage or reduce the risk of flood damage. We can’t control the floods, and we do not know all the things. The sheer magnitude and devastation of this series of storms up and down California should show us that climate change and nature can be unpredictable, and we are not in control. The death toll alone these last few weeks has been more devastating than the last two wildfire seasons in California.
Flood “Risk Reduction” is IN
So, we agree that we do not control floods. Now we can manage our system in a more adaptive and dynamic way so that we don’t always find California in a drought or flood, or worse: both at the same time, like right now. The combination of drought and flooding has its own unique set of devastating consequences that we have unfortunately seen recently.
Floods & Droughts Are Here to Stay
Droughts and floods have always plagued California, and that is not likely to change any time soon. But usually, wet or flood years reset us and can pull us out of droughts. That can’t happen unless our system is designed and managed to capture as much surface water as possible, in order to recharge as much of our underground aquifers as possible. If we want to be able to ride out the droughts, we need a system designed with more places for the water to go, and we need to manage our system so that we diverting water and allowing more to infiltrate throughout the system. I don’t have all the answers of how to accomplish this, and no individual person does; we need to think about it collectively. Our science and forecasting are getting better, but things need to change statewide if we want to make a lasting, positive change to our system.
Our Climate Is Changing—We Need to Change Too
As we’ve seen from these atmospheric rivers, the quantity of water and duration of these storms can put our system under high stress for a long time, and they are much greater than the storms and exceedance probabilities we have historically designed for. The climate is forever changing. Learning more about these atmospheric rivers and using what we learn to develop contingency plans for where the water can go is critical. Perhaps even more critical is understanding how to use the water to help recharge our water supply systems, so that we can pull through the inevitable droughts. That is why atmospheric rivers and dynamic system management—not just entity management—shot to the top of my “I need to learn more about this” list. I hope it did for you as well.
So, what the heck can we do?
- Continue to make smart system improvements. Luckily, some areas of our flood system are in the process of widening, or have recently widened, their floodways, bypasses, and weirs to handle more water, and provide a larger area for that water to travel over and recharge the land. Additionally, certain multi-benefit projects that inundate areas behind levees more frequently to both improve environmental connectivity and provide flood risk reduction by expanding the floodway.
- Learn everything you can and make science-based management decisions. We cannot become stale in our knowledge. We need to admit when we can do things better. “It has always been done this way” is not a good enough reason to keep doing something. There is a reason why our certifications and licenses require continuing education. We need to LEARN and ADAPT, especially as our climate continues to change.
- Use this experience to come together and take action. This year started off with tragedy for so many in our state, but this does not need to break us. In fact, it is a sad reality that tragedy can actually bring people together for a common cause. We can work together to implement systemic changes that help reduce the risk of devastating flooding in the future.
Call to Action
Of course, systemic changes need statewide support, so consider this a call to action to all flood risk reduction professionals in California: as inhabitants of this great state, and as those responsible for doing everything we can to keep our community safe from flooding, let’s use this tragedy to come together and find lasting solutions. Keep an eye out for our future blog posts about possible solutions and paths forward.