Why It’s Hard for California to Store More Water Underground

Despite the storms that have deluged California this winter, the state remains dogged by drought. And one of the simplest solutions — collecting and storing rainfall — is far more complicated than it seems.

Much of California’s water infrastructure hinges on storing precipitation during the late fall and winter for use during the dry spring and summer. The state’s groundwater aquifers can hold vast quantities of water — far more than its major reservoirs.

But those aquifers have been significantly depleted in recent decades, especially in the Central Valley, where farmers have increasingly pumped out water for their crops. And as Raymond Zhong, a New York Times climate journalist, recently reported, the state’s strict regulations surrounding water rights limit the diversion of floodwaters for storage as groundwater, even during fierce storms like the atmospheric rivers this winter.

I talked to Raymond to learn more about the potential of California’s groundwater, and its limitations. Here’s our conversation, edited for clarity and length:

How did this story come about?

I did a big story last year on flood risk in California and how climate change was increasing the risk of really strong storms. It was during the drought, and nobody in California was really thinking about the opposite problem, but they are two sides of the same hydrological equation. With climate change, you get both stronger storms and potentially longer and more intense droughts. In December and January, a bunch of strong storms swept through, and a lot of the concerns I was talking with experts about last year were realized.

This issue of using storm water to recharge groundwater sounds very simple, and it’s a solution that people have been interested in for a long time. But getting infrastructure, getting the money to do that and, in California, navigating the bureaucracy around water rights, is a big complication.

How do you weigh the opposing forces of regulations meant to protect water rights and water districts eager to counteract drought?

Water rights are clearly important for the government to protect. You don’t want to have irrigation districts, even cities and towns, arbitrarily deprived of water. But in California, the water rights system is often proving to be inflexible. These storms deliver a huge amount of very temporary water supplies, and it’s just unclear, the way the system works now, who gets to take that water. It’s water that’s there a few weeks, even days, every couple of years.

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The state has tried to advance the system to create temporary water rights, effectively. But it can take months to get one of these permits. The result has been that the system just doesn’t move quickly enough to take advantage when these storms come. And even last month, some districts that got permits didn’t get them quickly enough. So they had to watch a lot of the rain from those storms wash away into the ocean.

To what extent can the state’s drought conditions be addressed through an expanded use of groundwater?

Groundwater is super important for the state, and it’s really where the state has been losing most of its water supplies because of decades of over-pumping the ground. The potential for groundwater to improve the sustainability of the state’s supply is really huge. Storm water on its own probably won’t solve California’s drought issues, but it could make a big difference.

How will climate change exacerbate these problems? What’s at stake here in the long term?

California is already seeing how the swings between wet and dry have widened, even in just the last decade. The state just went through the driest three years in its history. But then starting with the storms in December, you had some of the wettest weeks.

With climate change, those extremes become more extreme. So a solution like figuring out how to put some of that floodwater into the ground and keeping it in reserve for droughts is going to become more and more important.

For more:

The megastorm that could hit California.

Why California’s recent storms didn’t make up for its drought.

How California’s atmospheric river storms stack up in history.

The rest of the news

Capturing carbon: California has a new plan to capture carbon out of the air and store it deep underground on a scale that’s not yet been seen in the United States, The Associated Press reports.

Tobacco ban: Some California lawmakers want to eventually ban all tobacco sales in the state, filing legislation to make it illegal to sell cigarettes and other products to anyone born after Jan. 1, 2007, The Associated Press reports.


Blizzard: As steady snowfall continued to present hazards in the mountains of Southern California on Saturday, residents at lower elevations dealt with the fallout from a more familiar threat: flooding.

Illegal vacation rentals: Three years after Los Angeles enacted new regulations for vacation rentals on websites such as Airbnb, the city’s enforcement of the law has declined, LAist reports.


Gang sweep: The authorities in central California announced more than two dozen arrests during a gang crackdown after the fatal shootings last month of six people at a home in Goshen, The Associated Press reports.


Student housing: A state appellate court has issued a final ruling that stops U.C. Berkeley from building student housing at People’s Park and opens new paths to block development, The Los Angeles Times reports.

Yosemite Park closed: Yosemite National Park is officially closed through at least Wednesday because of ongoing severe winter storm conditions, SFist reports.

What we’re eating

Smoked Gouda and broccoli flatbreads.

Where we’re traveling

Today’s tip comes from Debbie Hopkins, who recommends Lakes Basin Recreation Area in Plumas National Forest at the northern end of the Sierra Nevada: “Year-round activities. Stunning landscape and lacks the crowds of nearby Tahoe.”

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected] We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.

And before you go, some good news

“Ever since Marlon Brando and a group of thugs invaded the fictional Bleeker’s Cafe and Bar in the 1953 motorcycle film ‘The Wild One,’ the term ‘biker bar’ has carried a tantalizing whiff of danger,” Alta reports.

These bars “provide the unexpected thrill of discovering a funky little outpost with an inviting selection of brews, a stage for weekend musicians, and maybe a pool table or two,” the journal says. And where better to find them than in California’s deserts.

Thanks for reading. We’ll be back tomorrow.

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.

Soumya Karlamangla and Briana Scalia contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].

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