California struggles to handle water needs in drought and downpours

World Today

California has long battled both torrential rain and water shortages. CGTN’s Phil Lavelle reports.

Los Angeles is a city of extremes: downpours lead to deadly mudslides, yet people talk about a water shortage.

“Just like with earthquakes, droughts are just a way of life here in California,” said Demetri Polyzos of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

The state suffered a serious drought from 2012-2017, forcing many to change their long-established ways of life. Though no longer officially classified as in drought, many expect the designation to return soon.

“It could bring this country to its knees,” documentary filmmaker Jim Thebaut said. “It’s gonna impact international security.”

Thebaut knows drought inside out. He’s spent years investigating and making films about the issue.

“I interviewed Mikhail Gorbachev on one of my original films called ‘Running Dry,’ and he told me that no nation leader would hesitate to go to war over water and food,” he said.

Thebaut explored that almost apocalyptic vision in his latest film, “Beyond The Brink”, which looks at the part of California that supplies food to tens of millions of Americans.

California is considered to be the food basket for the U.S., and if the water dries up in the San Joaqin Valley, it could be disastrous.

“This is an international priority. It has to be done,” he said. “We can’t be complacent and think we’re always gonna have food in the grocery stores.”

Part of the problem is water storage – or a lack of it – especially in Los Angeles County. Surrounded by mountains, the area is effectively a basin, with water pouring into the middle and then draining straight out to the ocean. There’s very little infrastructure to store water for when its needed.

“It’s difficult to store the amount of water, the volume that occurs when those rains, those storm systems, come,” Polyzos said. “There is so much of it coming through, it’s very difficult to build the infrastructure to capture that.”

Officials say they are making steps in the right direction, however. They’ve been investing heavily in trying to get those supplies in and ready for the inevitable.

Last year was the wettest on record, and authorities were able to capture and store much of the water. Should another dry period arrive, officials say they will be able to stretch those supplies and manage consecutive dry years.

The plan is less saving for a rainy day, and more counting on that rainy day. All are in agreement that planning is crucial.

“The fox is always in the henhouse before we react in this country,” Thebaut said. “And we’ve got to now start dealing with it. We don’t let the fox go anywhere near the henhouse.”