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A Look at What’s in Store for California Water in 2017

We don’t know what kind of water year it will be yet, but there are already some big story lines that look set to develop throughout the year and key areas of focus we’ll continue covering.

Written by Tara Lohan Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes
The California Department of Water Resources conducts its first manual snow survey. The survey, on Jan. 3, 2017 at Phillips Station, took place just off Highway 50, approximately 90 miles (145km) east of Sacramento.Florence Low/California Department of Water Resources

In the simplest terms, California’s drought has a lot to do with the weather, which is why, despite a not-too-stellar initial snowpack reading, there is still a lot of optimism about this year’s wet season. But as seasoned water veterans know, there’s a lot more to the story that just the weather.

When Water Deeply started in the summer of 2015, California was in dire straits, having just had its worst snowpack year in recorded history. Warm waters were decimating salmon runs, farm fields were being fallowed and wells were going dry. A year and half later, the state has eased, slightly, out of drought, with the northern third of the state now drought-free.

In that time, a lot of other things have happened: The state’s taken a big step toward permitting recycled wastewater for drinking; creative partnerships have been forged by farmers and researchers to help salmon; urban residents proved they could rise to meet conservation goals; and implementation of groundwater law is underway.

Challenges and divisions remain, too, especially when it comes to balancing the needs of urban residents, farmers and the environment. In the next year, big decisions will be made about flows in major rivers and tributaries of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. And it may be a make-it-or-break-it year for California WaterFix, the plan to build new water conveyance in the Delta.

There are other issues, both promising and troubling. California took an important step in recognizing water as a human right, but hundreds of thousands of residents still lack access to safe drinking water. The drought has compounded the precarious relationship that the state has with wildfires, at once recognizing both their ecological importance and their threat to the communities growing farther into the urban–wildland interface.

As we rethink our relationship to fire, we’ve also begun to rethink our relationship to floods. Instead of building against them, in the next year we’re likely to see more projects working with floods in ways that are beneficial to people and the environment.

Warming temperatures will also play an increased role in water management decisions as the state’s “snow drought” continues, with precipitation falling more as rain than as snow in lower-elevation mountain areas, changing the way we think about and plan for water during the hottest, driest parts of the year.

We also know that what happens with water in California doesn’t just affect this state alone – the impacts of policy and technology transcend borders, as do rivers. With Lake Mead facing a potential shortage in 2018, California will continue to be engaged in key conversations with other Colorado River Basin states, which could have far-reaching consequences decades down the line.

All of these are stories into which we’ll dig deeply in the coming year as we continue our coverage of water in the West and expand our network of expert contributors. And we’ll be keeping an eye on what’s new and surprising, shining a light on solutions and expanding the voices contributing to the tough conversations about California’s water future.

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