Drought’s over, but climate change is still coming for California

Snow covering the Sierra Nevada behind the PG&E hydroelectric dam at Spaulding Lake in Nevada County on April 3 .
Snow covering the Sierra Nevada behind the PG&E hydroelectric dam at Spaulding Lake in Nevada County on April 3 . The Associated Press

Gov. Jerry Brown made official on Friday what anyone who happened to be looking out a window at yet another soggy Sacramento morning may have suspected: The California drought is over.

“But the next drought could be around the corner,” Brown cautioned in a statement accompanying his long-awaited executive order. “Conservation must remain a way of life.”

He’s right. Californians should see this not as an end to six years of drought, but merely as a reprieve. Climate change isn’t going away. The future is sure to be full of extreme weather, from smoking hot, dry summers with explosive wildfires to extremely wet winters with a high risk of flooding, mudslides and avalanches.

This should be a time for the state to prepare for what’s coming. The Legislature must prioritize infrastructure improvements, such as the $52 billion transportation plan that was approved last week, and finally get going on water projects to boost supplies before the next inevitable drought.

Brown did his part, keeping rules in place to encourage people to continue conserving water. Watering lawns during rainstorms is still a no-no. Californians seem to be OK with it. Residents reduced water usage by 25.1 percent in February, according to the State Water Resources Control Board. And that happened even though most municipal water agencies have backed away from the conservation mandates that Brown once pushed.

The state water agencies recently released a plan to permanently ban practices that are deemed wasteful. But we’ve seen what happens when more solid preparations aren’t made to stave off disaster.

This winter was among the wettest on record, swelling rivers to dangerous levels and sending water cascading over aging levies. In Oroville, the deluge nearly led to destruction. Some 188,000 people had to be evacuated in February after an untested emergency spillway crumbled, nearly sending a “wall of water” into houses and businesses along the Feather River.

Meanwhile, parts of Big Sur remain cut off after mudslides all but destroyed a bridge along Highway 1. And in the northern Sierra, where precipitation this year has been twice the historical average and the snowpack stands at 61 percent above average, Highway 50 is still down to one lane near near Bridal Veil Falls after part of the road crumbled down a hillside.

But what’s really disturbing is that most of that water — billions of gallons of it — flowed unchecked into the ocean because California hasn’t gotten around to ensuring there are enough ways to capture and store it.

That’s certainly a solid argument for building Sites Reservoir west of the Sacramento River. As we stated in 2015, the reservoir for surface storage must be part of a broader strategy of waste water recycling, stormwater capture, desalination, conservation and environmental protection. This is the time for legislators and state water officials to get serious about that.

In the Central Valley, groundwater supplies remain far below normal. To continue addressing that, Brown’s executive order wisely lifts his drought proclamations in every county except Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Tuolumne so that a series of emergency drinking water projects already underway there can continue.

In the end, though, California will have to do much of the work to prepare for the extreme weather of climate change on its own. Although the Trump administration has approved hundreds of millions of dollars in disaster funding, state legislators cannot rely on substantial federal help for infrastructure. The drought might be over, but the hard work is just beginning.

Editor’s note: Editorials from other newspapers are offered to stimulate debate and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Tribune.