March 22 was World Water Day, the annual United Nations (UN) day of observance that highlights the importance of fresh water. The day is used to advocate for the sustainable management of freshwater resources. The theme of each year focuses on topics relevant to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene. Last year’s theme was “Groundwater, Making the Invisible Visible” and the theme of this year’s event was “Accelerating the Change to Solve the Water and Sanitation Crisis” which encourages people to take action in their own lives to change the way they use, consume and manage water.
What does this all mean for the Yuba watershed, SYRCL, and SYRCL members?
Here in the watershed, we are really starting to see the effects of Global Climate Change (GCC), which means more climate variability; when it’s wet, we see more precipitation and when it’s dry, it’s hotter and drier for longer. Due to GCC, we are starting to see patterns where, for example, we see five years of well below average precipitation leading to drought-like conditions, and then one year of well above average. SYRCL’s Science Director, Aaron Zettler-Mann expands on this when he says, “The term drought (as related to whether the previous dry period is over) is an imprecise term with popular and technical usages and invariably is tied to the time scale one is referring to. By and large though, drought (or surplus) only exists in the context of an implied (or explicit) definition of demand. When there is less water available than people and the environment need, we call it a drought. It’s easy to want to think about water availability based on the weather outside, but it’s important to manage water resources keeping the boom-and-bust cycle of drought and surplus in mind, emphasizing water conservation and doing what we can to store water as groundwater. “
“When we worry about GCC and a warming climate we’re talking about long term trends and averages (climate averages are defined on a rolling 30-year period. The most recent one ended in 2020), not what’s happening today. I used to tell classes that weather is what you’re wearing today, climate is the range of clothes you have in your closet. GCC is a ‘closet’ issue, not an ‘outfit’ issue. Just because our outfit today is for wet weather, doesn’t mean we don’t spend most of our time in shorts.”
All the rain and snow we’ve experienced this year are great for the watershed for a myriad of reasons. This accumulated snow in the Sierra acts as a natural reservoir, holding all of the water we get and slowly releasing it through melt into the spring and summer. It can also contribute to a decrease in fire risk by shortening the fire season. As the snow melts, SYRCL’s work restoring meadows in the headwaters and lowering floodplains in the lower Yuba creates space for the water to spread out, slow down, and infiltrate into the groundwater system.
It’s important to keep in mind that more dams don’t “solve” drought. Our current system of reservoirs spends most of the time well below full capacity because the dry periods are much more frequent than the wet periods. Additional dams would only cause further significant environmental damage without creating more water – simply more empty reservoir space. As we enjoy the first wet year after quite a few dry years, and reflect on World Water Day, keep in mind that there is no single solution to our water crisis. It will take a concerted effort by water managing agencies, environmental organizations, and private people to balance our water demand so that we can enjoy the wet years and reduce demand during the dry years.
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