Spotlight on Infrastructure: California

Monday, June 25, 2018

From the sun soaked beaches of Malibu to the rugged peaks of the Sierra Nevadas, California has always set itself apart from the rest of the nation as a state truly unto itself. But this sprawling piece of the pacific coast, the country’s wealthiest no less, is quickly coming up on the same water crises looming around the world. In the past few years alone, California's water supply has seen both dramatic highs and dangerous lows, so let’s take a good look at exactly what is making California’s water supply so precarious.

From Droughts to Floods

Back in 2016, things looked dire. A historic drought had gripped the state, bringing water levels across California to near record lows. To best paint a picture, let’s look at Lake Oroville, possibly the state’s most important reservoir. This once immense body of water found itself transformed into a dry slab of mud by years of inadequate rainfall. From its perch north of San Francisco, this vital basin of water is designed to send immense amounts of water down the state’s spine, traveling across the agricultural powerhouse Central Valley through the California Aqueduct before eventually supplying the sprawling Los Angeles metropolis with much of its water. Along this route, high demands are put on this vital waterway to supply large swathes of the state with their water needs, but it's source is simply running low. At one point during this historic drought, the Reservoir only held 26% of it's total capcity and images of the barren landscape made national news as the state's drought intensified. Public officals begged residents across the state to reduce their usage, and even explored imposing fines on water wastrels.

Oroville Dam spillway damage 27 Feb 2017

But oh, how the times have changed.

In just the two years since the drought's peak in 2016, a weather system known as El Nino has come across the state, and with it the rains have returned in full force. Soon, the whole state was feeling the effects; while mudslides crippled Big Sur, over at lake Oroville the results were just as dramatic. In less than a year, water levels at the reservoir had climbed so quickly, spillways designed to prevent overflow had to be activated, ensuring that the lake would not breach it's dam, where there once was lake depleted by drought, there was soon a danger of floodwaters indundating local towns.

In Times of Famines

During the depths of the state's historic drought, from roughly 2013-2016, things in California were dire. As water levels neared historic lows, heavy water users saw fines to ensure that they kept away from water-intensive projects like watering lawns and filling pools. While the drought may have been hard on residents, it's greatest impact was on farmers. California's Central Valley is an agricultural and economic powerhouse for the states, acting as the nation's garden and producing evetrything from almonds to kale to zuchini for export across the country. When the region bagan on this path over a hundred years ago, water was brought in to transform the dry landscape into a fertile one. The California Aqueduct and other major projects provide farmers with the bulk of their water needs, but they have also relied upon the groundwater buried below to satisfy their thirst.

The farmers have long tapped underground reserves to irrigate thair plants, which has led these reserves to run low. Decades of unrelenting groundwater use have had a deep impact on the land, ultimately causing it to dip and buckle. The aquifers and wells are simply beginning to run dry, and with the drought in full swing the demands placed on them were only ramping up. Decades of chronic mismanagement had led to this, and the farmers had already tapped their last resort.

In Times of Floods

In 2016, the rains came and they came strong. Thanks to Northern California's wettest winter in over a century, rivers and creeks that ran dry just months earlier were now filling their banks and the state's network of reservoirs that sat precariously low were sudenly climbing towards their capacity.


At Oroville, officials activated the spillways for the first time in the dam's fifty-year history, excess waters cascaded down paths never before used. When reservoir levels were raised even higher, over 200,000 residents downstream were forced to evacuate.

Across the state floods and mudslides now loomed, and the emergency spillways designed to take on this glut of water were failing. The sheer force of water was simply too much for the infrastructure to handle. The best laid plans were simply not enough.

Perhaps the most important thing is, though the rivers run aplenty now, the groundwaters that have been tapped dry cannot be recharged. What has been removed has been removed, and the reserves can only grow smaller.

Ultimately California's large area, climate, and intense water needs make it an immensely dynamic place for water. These huge needs require a steady system, but the state's massive thirst and intense climate constrains these even further. Ultimately, the question is this: California's infrastructure is there, but will it always pass the test when it really matters?

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