Even after a wet winter, California is preparing for the next drought

May 15—SAN DIEGO — Mountains are capped with record snowpack, rolling hills are covered in a rainbow of wildflowers, reservoirs are filled to the brim, and rivers are rushing with snowmelt.

A vast majority of California is finally out of drought this month, after a punishing multiyear period of severe aridity that forced statewide water cuts and fueled existential fear over the future of the water supply.

Although a series of massive storms during the winter months brought desperately needed precipitation throughout the Golden State, water experts and state officials remain focused on preparing for the inevitable next drought. Based on lessons learned in recent years, they're refilling the state's over-drafted groundwater aquifers and encouraging water efficiency among residents learning to live with climate change.

Read more Stateline coverage of how communities across the West are grappling with drought that's worsening because of climate change.

By recharging groundwater basins and keeping in place some conservation policies, state and local water officials can help alleviate the pain of future droughts — but those efforts require flexibility and more investment, said Andrew Ayres, a research fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan think tank.

"There's still a lot of work to do to make sure that we can provide reliability in the next drought," he said. "Whenever that rolls around, things are always uncertain. It could be next year, and we might be right back into it."

After the deluge in a rare wet winter, less than 6% of California is in moderate drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a federal service run in partnership with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Yet nearly a third of the state is still abnormally dry.

What we're seeing in this shift from an extreme drought to now extreme flooding is emblematic of climate change. — Heather Cooley, Pacific Institute

With many of the state's reservoirs nearing full capacity — and others likely to continue to fill up as the mountains' snow melts and flows downstream — state and federal water authorities are for the first time in nearly two decades allocating full amounts of requested water supplies for cities and farming communities.

The storms this winter have helped restore reservoirs, but the state should continue building long-term water resilience, said Jeanine Jones, the interstate resources manager for the California Department of Water Resources, the agency in charge of water allotments.

"While this precipitation has helped surface water supplies and eased impacts from the state's record-breaking drought, California's groundwater basins are still depleted due to prolonged dry conditions and will require more than a single wet year to recover," she wrote in an emailed statement.

State and local water officials have for months focused on recharging groundwater basins through new investment and efforts such as diverting and collecting stormwater. Additionally, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in a March executive order eased some regulations so communities could more easily capture and store floodwater in the ground — sometimes by flooding fields and letting that water seep.

Some of that groundwater recharging will occur around wetlands and floodplains, which could be a boon for migratory birds and other wildlife whose habitats have suffered in recent years.

But the increase in water also can bring its own challenges. With so much snowmelt, flooding is already taking a toll in some areas of the state. The once dormant Tulare Lake in the San Joaquin Valley has flooded the surrounding Central California community and farmland.

Much of Southern California's water supply from the Colorado River also remains in flux.

Last month, the Biden administration released three proposals for the future of water-sharing among the seven states that use water from the Colorado River, whose basin is still in a 23-year drought. Most of Southern California's cities and farmland get their water from the river.

In order to prevent going to court, Western states will have to agree on one of those proposals, which primarily weigh California's historic water rights against what other states argue is an updated, more equitable approach.

Through the recent Inflation Reduction Act and other laws, the feds also are providing millions of dollars to incentivize farmers and ranchers in the Colorado River's upper basin states to forgo some water use and allow greater flows downstream. Money is going toward Salton Sea restoration in Southern California, as well.

There's a common refrain among conservationists: Plan for the wet times when it's dry, and plan for the dry times when it's wet.

A conservation mentality among California residents hasn't fully sunk in yet, said Heather Cooley, the director of research at the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based nonprofit that studies water policy.

Communities must continue building resiliency to a hotter and drier climate, she said, by replacing old, wasteful appliances and fixtures with more modern, efficient models; replacing water-intensive grass with plants that are more suited for the Western climate; and building new infrastructure to capture and recycle stormwater.

"What we're seeing in this shift from an extreme drought to now extreme flooding is emblematic of climate change," she said. "It's a future of more extremes. Now is the time to be making our communities resilient."