In Dry Times and Floods

Balancing the ebbs and flows requires a focus on the future

I took a drive Easter Sunday hoping to find a mountain bike trail that had dried out enough to ride. March and early April brought one significant snowstorm after another to Northern Wisconsin. The snowbanks in my driveway were still 6 feet high, but 70 miles south the snow was mostly gone. Trail condition info was scant, so I figured it was worth investigating.  

It was wishful thinking and, as it turned out, I would have had to drive about four hours to get on a decent open trail. What I found instead was plenty of soft ground, waterlogged gravel backroads and one trail system that was somehow still open for cross-country skiing. 

Water was the theme of the day. Rivers and streams were all high. Every ditch and depression was full from the spring melt — paradise for ducks and geese making their way north, but not so much for mountain bikers. 

Out west, many areas are dealing with the spring melt on a far more significant scale. Following the worst drought in centuries, the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which provides 30% of California’s water, was among the deepest in decades. As if a prayer were answered from above in the form of rain and snow, the majority of the state’s reservoirs are now at or above historic averages.  

But even drought relief presents its own challenges. The “atmospheric rivers” that brought record snows to the mountains also dumped heavy rains and caused severe flooding, mudslides and evacuations across areas of lower elevation. Now, as the weather warms (early April as I write this) the melting snowpack is poised to unleash more flooding. For local governments, utilities and citizens, fears of an evaporating water supply have been replaced — at least temporarily — with the urgent need to repair and replace damaged and destroyed infrastructure. 

I think it’s important to remember that no matter the circumstances, nature will present challenges. And while those challenges at times might seem insurmountable — drought in the western U.S. looked like it could last forever — nature does have cycles, even if they aren’t evenly metered. Some changes are permanent, some aren’t. But as long as we keep looking forward and focus on meeting tomorrow’s challenges, we’ll be prepared. 

The Orange County (California) Water District, profiled in this issue of Municipal Sewer & Water, isn’t sitting back and counting on heavy rains to alleviate water supply concerns. Instead, it’s looking forward and working to replenish the Orange County Water Basin, a vital resource for the region. 

Protecting the 270-square-mile basin is critical because it’s the main source of water for roughly 2.5 million residents in Orange County. In fact, the recycled-water program — called the Groundwater Replenishment System — supplies 77% of the county’s drinking water, a figure that’s expected to rise. 

Rivers flood and rivers run dry. We can’t predict every weather pattern but we can account for and accept the cycles. And hopefully, if we keep our eyes downriver and continue working to better preserve and protect our resources, we’ll be able to smooth out the ebbs and flows. 

Enjoy this month’s issue.


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