Newsletter: How a 1-hour flight can teach you a lot about water in California

The Tule River's water level almost reaches the top of a bridge that carries Avenue 152 over it in Porterville, Calif.
The Tule River’s water level almost reaches the top of a bridge that carries Avenue 152 over it in Porterville, Calif., on March 15.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning. I’m Paul Thornton, and it is Saturday, March 18, 2023. The L.A. Marathon is tomorrow, so here’s a list of street closures if you plan to drive around the 26.2-mile runner right-of-way. Let’s look back at the week in Opinion.

When wet weather is in the news, sometimes I think of what this all must look like from a plane flying over California. One route in particular comes to mind: On a clear day, the hourlong flight from L.A. (I prefer Burbank, but any local airport will work) to Sacramento lays out California’s water predicament as only a view from 30,000 feet can. In dry times or wet times, you can learn a lot from simply looking out the window.

To the east is the Sierra Nevada snowpack — don’t panic over the exposed granite peaks, as most precipitation is typically wrung out of storm clouds below the range’s 14,000-foot crest. In a cold, wet winter, a thick, white blanket over the mountains promises ample runoff and full reservoirs throughout the dry season and well into the fall — and 2024 has seen among the deepest snowpacks ever measured in the Sierra. If you can make out too many alpine meadows and green forests, brace for shortages.


At lower elevations just west of the snowpack are reservoirs — a lot of them, and from the plane they seem haphazardly cut into the foothills and canyons, fed by rivers and seasonal streams that once flowed freely into the San Joaquin Valley. Those rivers sustained healthy Chinook salmon runs that have dwindled close to the point of extinction, thanks not only to drought, but also the dams that hold back the cool, flowing water needed for their survival. In a dry year the natural riverbeds appear as jagged scars on the San Joaquin Valley floor, their water held behind dams primarily for the lush farmland and cities below. In really dry years, the reservoirs don’t look much better by the fall.

As the flight approaches Sacramento, the brown, unirrigated portions of the San Joaquin Valley give way to the greener pastures of the Sacramento Valley. This area, though still part of the gargantuan Central Valley, reliably receives much more rain than the drier San Joaquin Valley — so much that it appears you’ve flown to a different state. The rivers here are wide and always flowing. Adjacent to Sacramento’s airport is the Yolo Bypass, which most of the time looks like flat, uninhabited prairieland. It’s that way for a reason: In wet years, it can become a vast inland sea.

And there you have it — an hour in the air, and a comprehensive picture of a state engineered for extreme water scarcity or abundance, but not much in between. The reservoirs filling up right now are holding back water that once flowed into some of the largest freshwater lakes in the country. Those lakes, which dried up after their water sources were diverted (where have we heard that story before), once helped recharge aquifers beneath the valley floor. The Times’ editorial board takes the occasion of a record wet year in California to look at how its natural landscape once handled this abundance, and how we may need to restore what we’ve engineered away over the centuries:

“During the Great Flood of 1861-62, water covered the entire Central Valley. It would have been possible to sail from what was not yet Bakersfield, north past the flooded Capitol in Sacramento, almost to where Redding now sits.

“In drier times, though, those same flat floodplains looked especially attractive to farmers and builders, so now the valley floors are cultivated and developed. But in wet years like this one, all that rain, as well as the melted snow, still needs a place to go, and it doesn’t pay any attention to human development. It still seeks the lowest ground, and it will find it. A quick look at a satellite photo of the snow-covered Sierra makes it plain: No number of dams can hold all that water back, no number of reservoirs can lock it up.

“The solution is shockingly simple, relatively cheap — compared with the cost of cataclysmic floods — and surprisingly non-controversial. We just haven’t yet done it on the scale that’s needed.

“California needs to restore its floodplains. Not the whole valley floors, and not as they were in the pre-development era. But it needs to have many more acres of land reserved for floodwater.”


The flood in Monterey County isn’t just a “natural” disaster. Yes, the Pajaro River near Watsonville, Calif., is running high because of atmospheric-river storms, but it was a levee failure that sent flood waters into the small town of Pajaro, which is populated mostly by migrant workers and their families. Michael Méndez and Manuel Pastor write: “For decades, government officials have known that the levee was vulnerable yet never prioritized repairs largely because their cost-benefit analysis didn’t value the losses of a low-income town. As Stu Townsley of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told The Times over the weekend: ‘You get basically Bay Area construction costs but the value of property isn’t all that high.’ A reassessment, taking equity into account, has been made, but obviously too late to prevent catastrophe.” L.A. Times

Fire, then ice: Are the mountains going to collapse? In the New York Times, South Lake Tahoe resident Suzanne Roberts echoes a point I made last week about the whiplash of living in California’s mountain communities: “In the summer and fall, we breathe hazardous smoke and watch the fire maps, fretting that our homes will be devoured by flames; now we refresh weather apps on our phones, cringing at the precipitation forecasts and picturing our houses destroyed by ice. I used to count on winter as the season I could stop worrying and relax. But this winter, that’s impossible. The storms are coming in more frequently, and in some cases warmer and wetter than in the past, leading to catastrophic flooding, wet-snow avalanches and brutally heavy loads on our roofs.” New York Times

A strike that shuts down schools is bad for Los Angeles. The editorial board urges L.A. Unified School District and union officials to do everything in their power to avoid a three-day strike next week if teachers walk out in solidarity with non-classroom workers negotiating their contract: “Clearly, there are budgetary concerns affecting what the district can offer workers. But keeping the students in class should be the top priority, not just for district officials but for teachers, workers and union leaders. When LAUSD teachers walked out during a strike in 2019, then-Mayor Eric Garcetti stepped in to help broker a deal because he understood how important a functioning school system is to students, families and the workforce and economy of this entire city. We hope that both district and union officials have the same understanding now.” L.A. Times

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Gov. Ron DeSantis, the war in Ukraine isn’t just a “territorial dispute.” The Florida governor and potential GOP presidential hopeful told Tucker Carlson that “a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia” isn’t a vital national interest. The editorial board says he’s dangerously wrong: “Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) aptly noted that the war in Ukraine is ‘not a territorial dispute ... any more than it would be a territorial dispute if the United States decided that it wanted to invade Canada or take over the Bahamas.’ Equally important, allowing Moscow to conquer Ukraine could encourage aggressive acts by Russia against members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. DeSantis’ comments about Ukraine seem to place him closer to Trump’s position on the war.” L.A. Times

Does former Vice President Mike Pence deserve praise for his actions on Jan. 6, 2021? I’d say yes, for the same reason you praise a years-long alcoholic who suddenly stops drinking: No matter how abhorrent his conduct before, you want to reward him for behavior you’d like to see more of. It’s simple positive reinforcement. Columnist Jonah Goldberg sees things a little differently, and it’s hard for me to disagree with him: “While I am glad and grateful for what he did, some of the praise feels excessive. If all your friends decide to rob a bank but you refused to go along, that’s great. But there’s no heroism in choosing not to rob a bank. After all, not all painful choices are necessarily hard choices.” L.A. Times

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