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Governor Approves Funding for New Research Program Aimed at Saving State Water

Budget signed by Brown supports launch of atmospheric river program that could enable storage of billions more gallons of water in state reservoirs

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Satellite image of precipitable water in global clouds on Jan. 5, 2016, when an atmospheric river helped deliver five inches of rain to Southern California over a three-day period.

California Gov. Jerry Brown authorized Tuesday the allocation of funds that will create a program proposed by a Northern California water agency that draws on climate science largely developed at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego.

The program could enable storage of billions more gallons of water in state reservoirs than is possible now. This is based on emerging science and applications related to the discovery of atmospheric rivers, which are a type of storm that is especially effective in producing California rain and snow. By employing the latest knowledge of atmospheric rivers, advancing that knowledge and creating tools and methods aimed at monitoring and predicting them, it will provide potent new information to support modern reservoir operations strategies now under development.

“I applaud the governor and the leadership in the legislature, and especially Sen. Marty Block for their foresight and their confidence in research-driven solutions to California’s water crisis,” said Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who serves as a UC regent and chair of the State Lands Commission. “Time and again, University of California faculty and researchers have discovered new scientific pathways to address seemingly insoluble trends in climate, health, and the environment. We trust that precise understanding and prediction of atmospheric rivers will be among their most fruitful discoveries.”

“At UC San Diego, we are committed to developing innovative solutions for global problems, and being part of solutions on this scale is rewarding in full measure,” said UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla. “These top-tier scientific collaborations deliver for California and bring added value to UC San Diego and our colleagues, as we attract the most academically talented faculty and students to our campuses.”

The Atmospheric Rivers: Research, Mitigation, and Climate Forecasting Program created in 2015 by the passage of Senate Bill 758 has the potential to make the same amount of water available to California as would the construction of dams costing billions of dollars but would do so through smarter use of existing infrastructure. And, if new reservoirs become a reality, it could enable them to be even more effective. The Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) has worked closely with Scripps scientists for several years to better understand atmospheric rivers, which are focused channels of moisture in the atmosphere that can deliver nearly half of the state’s water supply in relatively few strong storms annually.

“Preliminary indications from our pilot project at Lake Mendocino suggest that better atmospheric rivers forecasting and reservoir re-operation could increase available water supply from the lake by 10 to 20 percent in many water years,” said Sonoma County Water Agency Director Shirlee Zane. “The technology may be applicable statewide with potentially significant benefits for increased California water availability. There are few if any alternatives that offer these kinds of water supply increases in the near term and at such a reasonable cost. Funding will enable some of California’s best researchers to begin solving a technical challenge that is uniquely Californian and has significant benefits for Californians.”

SB 758 was authored by 39th District State Senator Marty Block and received broad support from California’s legislative leadership including Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon and Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins.

“Last year we acquainted both houses of the legislature and the administration on the value of research into atmospheric rivers for drought relief and flood control,” Block said. “When my Senate Bill 758 was signed by the Governor, we still faced one major hurdle: identifying the necessary funding. This month a team that included UC San Diego researchers, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De Leon, Assembly budget and appropriations chairs Phil Ting and Lorena Gonzalez, and Senate environmental staffer Kip Lipper worked tirelessly to capture the dollars needed for launch. Our success is good news for scientific research, good news for UC San Diego, and very good news for all of California.”

SB 758 allows the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) to study the causes of atmospheric rivers, how they are affected by dust, pollutants, and other aerosols, and their impact on extreme weather conditions. It would also enable DWR to operate reservoirs in a manner that improves flood protection and captures water produced by atmospheric rivers. This scientific forecasting can also be shared with the federal government to assist with better-informed and coordinated water management.

“Atmospheric river-driven storms can make or break a water year in the California. They are relatively narrow regions, about 400 miles wide, in the atmosphere that are responsible for most of the movement of water vapor outside the tropics and when one hits California can produce heavy rain and snow. A strong AR can move an amount of water vapor equivalent to about 20 times the average flow of liquid water at the mouth of the Mississippi River,” said weather and climate scientist Marty Ralph, who leads the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes (CW3E) at Scripps, and is the preeminent scientist on atmospheric rivers and associated applications to water management.

Block’s legislation builds on a pilot project to test Forecast-Informed Reservoir Operations (FIRO) on Lake Mendocino, a vital reservoir on the Russian River. FIRO is a proposed water management strategy that uses weather forecasts to help inform decisions on when water should be released or retained depending on forecasts and current watershed conditions. CW3E and SCWA lead the project. This interagency, cross-disciplinary team of experts is exploring the viability of utilizing forecasts of atmospheric rivers and their heavy precipitation in operational decisions at key California reservoirs that have been plagued by drought. Such forecasts could provide sufficient notice of these events to enable prudent planning and adaptable operation so that water managers would be better positioned to maximize water supply while maintaining public safety.

The legislation was supported by the San Diego County Water Authority, Bay Area Flood Protection Agencies Association, the Orange County Water District, the Santa Clara Valley Water District, and the Sonoma County Water Agency.


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