El Niño Has Arrived- Now What?

By: Craig Kessler

Chief NASA JPL climatologist Bill Patzert told the Los Angeles Times that the first week of 2016 amounted to a “textbook” El Niño system.  A rapid succession of storms lined up across the Pacific Ocean and pelted California at a faster clip than during the previous El Niño periods in 1982-83 and 1997-98, the implication being that all those predictions about a strong El Niño are coming to fruition.

At least for now.  When the subject is the weather, the only thing we can ever know for sure is what happened, not what will happen.  But so far, so good; indeed, so far, it couldn’t be better.

It may seem odd to rejoice in golf courses closed due to inclement weather, floods, and debris swelling flood control basins making beaches unsafe.  But after four years of a crushing drought in which California saw its driest year on record, hottest year on record, hottest combined hot/dry year on record, and the lowest Sierra snowpack recorded in 500 years – well, suffice it to say the closures, floods and debris swelled waterways are a small price to pay for some relief.

And that’s pretty much all that even a “textbook” El Niño will bring – relief.  It won’t end the drought.  It will take more than one great precipitation year to do that, and many climatologists are already warning that El Niño’s are often followed immediately by La Nina’s, a situation in which the eastern Pacific waters cool down and lead to a dry pattern over the American Southwest.

The first bit of “relief” promises to come later this month when the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) promulgates some relaxations in the current gubernatorial emergency drought order.  As everyone reading this surely knows, for the first time in the state’s history we are under a set of mandatory water restrictions aimed at accomplishing a 25% overall reduction in urban water consumption by February 28 (25% less than 2013 usage).  As of December 31, that number is tracking at 26.3%.  And due in part to that and due in part to the tolling of El Niño, the SWRCB is set to reduce that number to 22% and in addition reduce by a factor of 4% for those areas that have disproportionately invested in alternate sources of water (desalination in San Diego County and potable reuse in Orange County) and those areas where evapotranspiration rates are onerous due to extreme heat (deserts and inland valleys).

To the extent that El Niño continues along its “textbook” path SWRCB is prepared to issue further relaxations, although it is not at this time going to consider revoking the emergency order, which is going to be extended another 270 days as part of the envisaged “relaxation” measure.  The golf industry would hope that SWRCB might incorporate the Coachella Valley’s huge seasonal population shift into the mix of factors to consider when assigning tiers; when all those snowbirds are at their permanent homes in the “off season,” their outdoor landscapes require water even if their indoor areas don’t.  And that’s not an unreasonable hope.  With each iteration of these emergency regulations, the SWRCB incorporates more equity and nuance.

SWRCB was assigned a task for which it had neither adequate resources nor institutional memory, and it did not have the luxury of time.  Facing a possible 5th year of drought, California simply had to reduce its water consumption or face potentially crippling shortage in 2016-2017.  Hard cases make bad law, but they have to be resolved.  Crises make for bad public policy, but they have to be addressed.  SWRCB deserves credit for adequately addressing this crisis, but that in no way obviates the need to use the time afforded us by El Niño’s appearance to craft better public policies for managing future droughts and drought emergencies.  And from what the climatologists tell us, our burgeoning population practically guarantees that we are going to face future droughts and drought emergencies.

Buried in the Governor’s April 1, 2015 Executive Order that created the mandatory 25% conservation protocol was an order to the Department of Water Resources (DWR) and SWRCB to begin reforming certain regulations and laws based on some of the lessons of the current drought.  DWR has already revamped the Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance (MWELO), and the California Alliance for Golf (CAG) very effectively participated in that truncated process; the formulae upon which golf course water budgets are assigned in virtually every “alternative means of compliance” protocol are enshrined therein, and any changes thereto would have resulted in budget allocations considerably smaller than they are presently.

In 2016 DWR will revamp additional regulations and ordinances with the potential to affect the golf industry, and CAG has been invited to the table where these initial deliberations will take place.  As SWRCB gets down to its own assigned regulatory/legislative workload, the golf industry is working to duplicate that same level of engagement.

El Niño may be closing the book on the great 2012-2015 drought, but it isn’t going to close the book on a rapid succession of new laws, regulations, and protocols regarding water allocation and use; indeed, the book is just opening regarding the regulation of groundwater.  The next few years will see the adoption of groundwater sustainability plans for all of the state’s un-adjudicated groundwater basins, and the golf industry has as much at stake in that process as it does in all of the DWR and SWRCB coming processes.

What now?  A new normal where business as usual promises to be more business with regulatory agencies and legislative bodies than at any time in the industry’s past.