By Lew Avera
Our recent torrential rains both here and throughout California bring the subject of drought to light.
The most dramatic and publicized element of this recent deluge has been the Oroville Dam and Feather River catastrophes of the recent few weeks. I was fortunate in my Orange County Grand Jury term to spend a full day at Oroville in 2004 and explore all aspects of its role in the state’s water supply. In light of these overflow disasters, I distinctly remember that Lake Oroville was at 74 percent of capacity and the snowpack was almost nonexistent. Officials were extremely concerned about the future water supply and also the loss of electricity being generated by the dam hydroelectric power plant at the base. Until this year, the situation deteriorated even further to extreme droughts and emergency situations where most storage lakes like Oroville were essentially dry. Now, all of a sudden, everything has reversed into the worst flooding conditions in recent history. This has been a result of not only rain, but also snow that has restored the snowpack to normal levels.
In addition to all we have read about the Oroville Dam and the evacuations of the lower cities, the Federal Fish Hatchery below the dam is also worth recognizing. I spent hours there and was amazed. It is the largest fish hatchery in the United States, releasing 10 million salmon into the Feather River each year. They were able to truck some 6 million young salmon away to another facility before the overflow.
The emergency conditions of today have been generated solely by the amount of rain and not snow. While the snowpack is back to normal, the amount of rain must be attributed to much higher than normal temperatures in the northern region. This has caused much of the normal snow to fall as rain, overtaxing water storage capacity. As we know, this excess rainfall is being seen not only in the north but recently in record amounts here in San Clemente. We need to be aware, however, that this is not the end of concern for our water supply. This supply will continue to depend upon the snowpack over time. The big unknown question in all of this is global warming. Is this current 2016-2017 situation a result of permanent global warming or is it simply a short-term fluctuation?
While much of the Oroville overflow is coming south and replenishing our storage facilities all over Southern California and San Clemente, over time, depending upon temperature, these storage facilities could be depleted again. This could lead to another serious drought.
It is crucial to understand that virtually all of the rain that has fallen in San Clemente recently has flowed directly to the ocean. We have only one very small reservoir that can hold an insignificant amount of water versus our needs. Of course, most of our water is purchased from a water district that has a continuing supply. However, the water district’s supply is also subject to the above conditions. Again, we all need to be aware of these factors and continue to move toward conservation and reduced water usage, notwithstanding the current deluge.
One benefit of the current local storms has been the more public spaces. These rains have been a blessing to the golf courses which are now a gorgeous green. Also, the open spaces on the hills are at peak colors. Driving up La Pata, the hills on each side are a beautiful bright green in many places. Perhaps the lushest of all is the grass-covered athletic field at the Vista Hermosa Sports Park.
In summary, we must remember that the long-term drought may not at all be over. We must continue to conserve and hope that this is also not a dramatic and sudden climate change.
Lew Avera is a retired career officer, Lt. Col., U.S. Marine Corps. He has been a director of the Talega HOA since 2003 and served on the San Clemente Planning Commission from 2005 to 2013.