Between late Saturday evening and early Monday morning, the city I live in, Sacramento, received more than five inches of rain. By midnight on Sunday, the storm had qualified as the single wettest 24-hour period in Sacramento’s history.
Overnight, Lake Tahoe’s waters rose above its natural rim for the first time in many months, high enough to let the lake once again start to drain into the Truckee River. Virtually overnight, too, the extraordinary spectacle of Yosemite’s waterfalls kicked into gear again, huge quantities of water once again cascading down from the top of El Capitan. Up in the mountains, a parched landscape was suddenly buried under several feet of snow—the earliest major snowfall in the High Sierras in 17 years.
There is something truly remarkable about the way that California rejuvenates after a massive storm. Something humbling and otherworldly about the sheer volume of rain that falls on the lower elevations and the transformative snows that blanket the higher elevations. Storms such as last weekend’s leave a euphoric feeling in their wake, a sense of nature finding a way to right itself after months in which the rains were absent and the land was left at the mercy of mega-fires.
Yet all is still not right. Because of the fierceness of the drought, the water table remains shockingly depleted, the aquifers overused. Poorer residents of rural areas, many of them nonwhite, are still left with the most precarious of water supplies for their homes.
California passed landmark legislation in 2012 establishing that access to sufficient quantities of safe drinking water was a human right. It passed landmark water regulations a few years later, mandating local water authorities to devise sustainable usage plans that would move the state as a whole toward a sustainable level of water consumption by 2040. It has since invested billions of dollars in recent years linking up smaller, more rural communities to water systems in nearby towns.
But despite this progress, many communities are still vulnerable to drought, and one strong rainstorm won’t be enough to restore water to the many residents whose wells have run dry. 2020 was the third-driest year on record for California, meaning there’s an awful lot of water in reservoirs and water tables that needs to be replenished before residents can breathe easy about their supplies. Most of the state remains in extreme drought conditions, and the broader American West is still in the vise of a “megadrought,” one that has so damaged water supplies that even allotments of Colorado River water have had to be curtailed.
In small towns in the Central Valley and the foothills, in particular, local residents are fighting a losing battle with agribusiness, competing for ever-scarcer groundwater. Inevitably, agribusiness—which can afford to drill deeper and deeper wells as the water table sinks—wins these battles; and many residents, as a result, are left with unusable, silted-up wells. At that point, they have to either rely on trucked-in water delivered to huge water tanks installed on their properties by local community-help organizations such as Self Help Enterprises, or they end up spending vast amounts of money and time to get water from local supermarkets.
It’s become something of a macabre, yet familiar, cycle. Water shortages scarred communities during the last drought, and, despite the rash of ambitious water legislation in recent years, they’re scarring communities again during this current drought.
Earlier this week, Governor Gavin Newsom announced that he would be heading to Glasgow, to take part in the COP26 international talks on climate change policy. To buttress his environmental credentials, Newsom’s team announced that the state’s oil industry regulators would begin barring new oil and gas digs within 3,200 feet of homes, schools, and hospitals. That’s an important climate change decision. But regulating fossil fuels, while good, isn’t enough.
So much damage has already been, and is being, caused by climate change. California’s drought has been—as were, quite possibly, the extraordinary deluges of last weekend—magnified by man-made global warming. The state’s water systems remain dangerously strained, and large numbers of residents still have no access to regular, safe supplies of either piped-in tap water or water from a well.
When Governor Newsom returns to California post-COP26, he will be confronted by the ongoing effects of drought and sinking water tables. What policy and regulatory responses he puts into the mix to tackle these crises will, I suspect, ultimately define his environmental and social justice legacies at least as much as his presence among national and international leaders in Glasgow.