Drought: Rain fell, but where did the water go?

Rain fell, but where did it go?  Photo Credit: Brandon Doran
Rain fell, but where did it go?
Photo Credit: Brandon Doran

The past week or so brought much needed rain to Northern California. But where did all that water go? Unfortunately, here in the Bay area most of it ran out to the Bay through the storm drain system, carrying trash and pollution with it.

There is a disconnect between how we manage water for flood control, quality, and supply. The goal of flood control systems is to remove water from our roads and urban areas as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, this water is carrying a significant amount of pollution with it, degrading water quality in local waterways and the Bay. We are also experiencing a drought, and yet we are allowing runoff from our city streets to flow through our storm drains and out to the Bay rather than putting that water to beneficial use.

Flooding

Before we urbanized the landscape of Northern California, rain water soaked into the ground where it fell, recharging groundwater. Now that the land is covered in impervious surfaces like asphalt and buildings, our cities have created a network of storm drains to carry water from our urban streets to nearby creeks that flow out to the Bay. However, flooding still occurs when trash, leaves and other debris clog storm drains, or when the local waterways become overwhelmed by the sudden and drastic increase in water flowing in from storm drains.

Pollution

Because of the risk of flooding, storm water policies have focused on removing water from city streets and urban areas as quickly as possible, which means water flows directly into the waterways without treatment. As a result, pollutants like heavy metals, oils, pet waste, and trash are carried by the storm water into our waterways. This is why Save The Bay has prioritized stopping trash pollution at the source, working with cities and counties throughout the Bay Area to ban plastic bags and Styrofoam. We have also turned our attention to cigarette butts which are commonly littered on streets and sidewalks near storm drains.

Beneficial Use

There are better ways to prevent our urban areas from flooding than sending all the water, and the pollutants picked up along the way, out to the Bay and ocean. We depend on the streams and rivers of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to deliver water to the entire state even though rain falls throughout the state. The state of California is facing both a drought and groundwater depletion; we should be thinking more comprehensively about water supply solutions.

As water simply soaks into soil, pollutants are filtered out. This clean water then soaks into our groundwater system, replenishing water that we remove through wells and pumps. Homes have gutter systems that remove rooftop water and direct it out of a single pipe. If this pipe drains onto an impervious surface like a sidewalk or driveway, the water will run into the storm drain. If the pipe drains onto dirt or grass, the water is soaked into the ground, replenishing groundwater. Better yet, this water can be captured in barrels to use for watering plants during dry days. On a larger scale, the same concepts can be used for larger buildings and structures, or larger pieces of land like city parks. Another option is to create more permeable space, including paving streets with porous asphalt, green roofs, and more open space like parks.

Luckily, California legislators and policy makers are currently working to address the many water related issues facing the state, and are taking a more comprehensive approach. For example, Senator Wolk’s water bond bill, SB 848, includes $500 million for storm water capture and reuse projects. These projects are essential to improving water quality and can increase water supply. We’ll have to wait and see what decision makers will agree upon to address the significant water issues facing the state, but one thing is for sure; doing nothing is no longer an option.

 

Drought Puts Planting Season in Jeopardy

Habitat Restoration Volunteers Planting Native Seedlings
Volunteers plant native seedlings along the Bay shoreline.
Photo Credit: Dan Sullivan.

2013 was the driest year on record in California, leaving 87% of California in a severe drought. The drought we’re experiencing is caused by a massive high pressure ridge that has camped out over the eastern Pacific Ocean for 13 months. This ridge is pushing the jet stream that normally delivers our rainfall and snowpack up to Canada.

The State Department of Water Resources is likely to recommend that Governor Brown declare a drought emergency by February 1st. In a meeting with Central Valley farmers and water managers on Monday, Governor Brown responded to drought declaration questions with “not today, but we’re certainly getting ready.”  This declaration could loosen water quality regulations that are meant to protect endangered fish, allowing more water to be delivered throughout the state.

Major Bay Area water agencies are expected to make decisions in the next few months about whether to impose mandatory summer water restrictions. Meanwhile, local water utilities in Sonoma and Marin counties have launched a campaign to educate the public about conserving water. Lake Mendocino, which supplies water to Sonoma County is at 38% of capacity. Reservoirs in the Mokelumne River watershed, which supply most of the East Bay’s water, are still two-thirds full. The ten local reservoirs in Santa Clara County are at 33 percent capacity.

The lack of rainfall is also having a significant impact on Save The Bay’s planting season. Our on-the-ground wetland restoration projects re-establish native plants in the unique transition zone habitat located between Bay water and land. Our Habitat Restoration team and thousands of volunteers restore the wetlands by growing seedlings in our nurseries, sowing the plants along the shoreline, and maintaining the sites by removing invasive weed species and cleaning up trash.

Donna Ball, our Habitat Restoration Director, wrote last year about the difficulty of planting and maintaining 30,000 seedlings without adequate rainfall. We plant during the rainy season because newly installed plants require water to ensure their survival immediately after planting. With an even drier winter so far and an ambitious 40,000 plants to put in the ground by the end of March, this planting season has proven even more challenging. Donna says that “due to the lack of rain this winter, our staff and volunteers have spent more time on watering instead of planting, jeopardizing our ability to plant all 40,000 seedlings.” We need more volunteers to help us get these plants in the ground and keep them watered.

Help us get through this drought with 40,000 healthy plants in the ground and intact by volunteering at one of our habitat restoration events! Visit www.savesfbay.org/volunteer to sign-up!

 

 

UPDATE – January 17, 2014:

Governor Brown has declared a Drought State of Emergency.  In his press release, the Governor said “We can’t make it rain, but we can be much better prepared for the terrible consequences that California’s drought now threatens, including dramatically less water for our farms and communities and increased fires in both urban and rural areas.”  The Governor called on all Californians “to conserve water in every possible way.”  Please visit the Office of the Governor’s website to view the press release and the language of the Governor’s proclamation.  

 

 

UPDATE – January 21, 2014:

“State regulators can now relax water quality standards, allowing rivers and estuaries to be saltier and warmer, as they try to manage the state’s limited supplies.”  A KQED article explains how the drought declaration will loosen environmental regulations.