When It Rains

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In the Central Valley community of East Porterville, seven thousand people are living without water in their homes. Paleoclimatologists are reporting that the Sierra Nevada snowpack is at a five-hundred-year low, a far scarier data point than was available back in April, when Governor Jerry Brown announced statewide mandatory water-use cut backs of twenty-five per cent. Five hundred and forty-five thousand acres of California have burned so far this year, in a relentless fire season that still has months to go. Desperate measures rule the day: the imam at a mosque in Chino recently gathered together a large, interfaith crowd to pray for rain. So on Tuesday, when Southern Californians woke up to the sound of a downpour before dawn—Alhambra received nearly two and a half inches in the storm, and, in Los Angeles, my drought-tracking five-year-old son kept waking up, afraid he’d left the bathroom sink running—it felt like a benediction, or at least a reprieve.

But rain in a dry land can be more curse than cure. This week’s mudslides and swollen rivers were only the first signs of the new lashing the state will take if and when the much-anticipated “Godzilla” El Niño comes. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association estimated the costs to the United States of the last very big El Niño, in the late fall and early winter of 1997-98, at twenty-five billion dollars. California’s losses were $1.1 billion, and seventeen people died. Jerry Brown—brave man—openly connects the California drought to global warming; mega-storms are another established feature of climate change.

Clearly, the water system needs an overhaul, as does our way of thinking about the weather. Not long ago, I heard a public official give the rain a dollar value—a five-day drenching some years back, he said, had been “a forty-million-dollar storm.” He didn’t mean the financial toll of the damage—the old way of calculating—but the value of the water that dropped down from the sky and was wasted. Hardpan earth and fire-stripped forests can’t hold the rainwater; in a paved paradise like Los Angeles, most of the water (along with the surface contaminants) flows directly to the sea. According to the L.A. Times, “Between 80% and 90% of the rain that falls in the urban Southland winds up in a vast storm drain system that eventually dumps it into the ocean.” Only eleven per cent of L.A.’s water is local, the rest is expensively imported from far-off regions like Imperial County, which I wrote about in the magazine in May.

In Los Angeles, storm-water collection yields an average of twenty-seven thousand acre-feet of water a year, which is enough to supply about fifty thousand households. New plans approved in May by the State Water Resources Control Board could increase that by up to two hundred thousand acre-feet a year, with additional spreading grounds, underground storage, and wetland parks, as well as “green streets” designed to absorb water and filter it through soil, rather than conducting it on cement. It’s an ambitious plan to replenish depleted aquifers and maximize the rain that seems to come only in torrents, and it could influence how rainwater is collected and deployed around the state. But it’s also twenty years and potentially hundreds of millions of dollars away from full implementation.

Thirty-one inches of rain fell in downtown Los Angeles in the 1997-98 El Niño. This one is supposed to be bigger. Bill Patzert, a climatologist at NASA, is predicting “floods, mudslides and mayhem.” I’m hoping that this spring, when the power comes back on, economists will start to tally the costs of the storm with a new, highly motivating line item: money down the drain.

Read more at the newyorker.com

Chris Alexakiswater