With the first phase of repairs to the Oroville Dam spillway completed, residents downstream can breathe a little easier. Hundreds of engineers and laborers worked around the clock to fortify the nation’s tallest dam before winter rains, and the Department of Water Resources should be congratulated for expediting this enormous task. But there is a key part of this repair that is still to be done to ensure that California’s water system is ready to withstand the challenges of extreme weather events predicted for the future. That is, repairing the watershed that supplies and regulates the flow of water into the Oroville reservoir.
Fires, floods and drought have become the state’s new normal, and our water infrastructure must be equipped to cope with extremes. But an integral component has been largely missing from the water security discussion – the restoration of the north state’s primary watersheds at Oroville and Shasta, which deliver water to the Delta. This natural infrastructure – forests, meadows and streams – is essential to maintain and improve delivery of clean water to the state water system. This is especially important for the Shasta and Oroville reservoirs, the state’s two largest reservoirs and the core of the California’s water supply on which some 28 million Californians and our agricultural economy rely.
Restoration and protection of forested source watersheds is a proven tool to reduce flood intensity, increase water supply and storage, improve timing and amount of water releases – especially for the hot summer months – and improve water quality. However, watershed restoration has never been carried out comprehensively or at scale. Investing in integrated restoration will produce wide-ranging benefits for water reliability, supply and public safety at a fraction of the cost of building new infrastructure for the same purposes.
In 2016, California enacted my bill, Assembly Bill 2480, which acknowledged the importance of these water banks as the essential complement to our built water system infrastructure. Their repair and maintenance are necessary for a more reliable water supply as well as a cost-effective solution to our water worries.
Now we need to accelerate the implementation of AB 2480 to keep this important water source healthy and functioning. A recent assessment by Pacific Forest Trust shows that half of this source water infrastructure is significantly degraded due to climate change, inconsistent land management and other stressors, posing major risk to the reliability, quality and security of the water supply that millions of Californians depend on.
Climate change is exacerbating the intensity of the wildfires, floods and pest outbreaks, which have become common across our watersheds. The overflow and breakage of the Oroville Dam last winter is but one sign of the challenges and expenses to come if we don’t address these issues. There is plenty of opportunity to cost-effectively address the pending threats, reduce risk and increase water security, but to date all efforts have been underfunded, crisis-driven and piecemeal.
While water interests across California wrestle with debates over tunnels and other man-made infrastructure, let’s not ignore this agreed-upon and practical solution to the state’s water woes. Keeping Oroville and other dams functional will require repair and maintenance of natural storage to absorb overflows in the winter and provide sufficient water in the dry months. We cannot delay on taking action if we are to safeguard California’s water and protect its citizens now and in the future.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.