(CNN) — California has gone from extreme drought to extreme flooding in a matter of days. This Monday, another round of storms put 90% of the state’s population on flood alert. Last week, several counties in the state were experiencing just the opposite: extraordinary drought, which the US Drought Monitor considers the most severe category.
California’s parade of ultra-moist storms hasn’t completely reversed the drought. And scientists warn there is still a long way to go to reverse years of adverse rainfall trends and over-exploitation of water supplies.
But the sudden change from drought warning to flood warning highlights the dilemma facing California: How to manage the massive amount of rain in a water-scarce state? Is it possible to take advantage of that water so that it is available during the dry summer months?
Part of the solution, climate scientists explained to CNN, is to remove dams so rivers have more room to safely spill their banks into surrounding land.
Peter Gleick, a climate scientist and co-founder of the Oakland Pacific Institute, told CNN, “We have to let our rivers flow differently, and let the rivers flow a little bit higher than their banks and recharge our groundwater in the wet season.” Is.” “Instead of thinking we can control all the floods, we have to learn to live with them.”
Gleick said levees have effectively protected communities in the past, but they are not designed for today’s climate change challenges.
“We need a new way of thinking, we have to make that infrastructure work differently, we have to change some of its characteristics,” Gleick said. “It will allow us to capture more of those flood flows, store it underground in those aquifers, and then use those groundwater resources when we need them in dry years.”
Many climate experts agree: The use of levees to prevent flooding during the wet season means less water is available to seep into groundwater aquifers. Those aquifers are important sources of drinking, bathing and agricultural water in California’s Central Valley, and they are drying up.
But there’s a big catch: Giving rivers more room to overflow means entire communities have to be relocated in a process known as controlled retreat.
Nicholas Pinter, a researcher and professor of applied geosciences at the University of California at Davis, acknowledged that controlled withdrawal is a difficult task, but noted that other countries are already doing it.
“We’re behind the others,” Pinter told CNN. “The Europeans started doing this in the 1990s. They invested billions of euros to bring back the dikes.”
Pinter stressed that the United States has always prioritized building infrastructure over providing security.
“We’ve always had an engineering mindset with strong property rights,” Pinter said. “There is also strong resistance from property owners when it comes to relinquishing property rights.”
There is also the possibility that political leaders concerned about the loss of property tax revenue and the loss of building and developable land will not support these measures, Pinter explained.
Gleick said a concept like managed retirement requires a mindset shift that will be extremely difficult to achieve. “These changes are easier said than done, but they have to be done.”
Both Pinter and Gleick said managed retirement is just one tool in the box when it comes to adjusting to more extreme weather. Gleick said there are many other policies states should consider.
“We have to redesign insurance policies so that once they’re damaged we’re not rebuilding homes in the same places they’re going to flood again,” Gleick said. “We have to create a flood insurance policy to encourage people to move away from flood plains, so that we can open up those flood plains so that when we do have floods, they’re less damaging.”