SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Thanks to recent storms dumping huge amounts of water, the people who watch over our water supplies — like Drew Lessard, who’s worked at Folsom Dam since 2000 — have a brighter outlook on the year ahead, after record years of drought.
“We’re as full as we can be pretty much based on the flood control diagram, so we’re in a great position here for the rest of the year. We think that there’s going to be a great recreation season, some good boating,” said Lessard, the Folsom Dam's manager.
As good as the outlook is, the Pacific Institute estimates that during high-precipitation years, we lose around 3.9 million acre-feet of water, four times the amount of water Lessard says Folsom Dam holds.
The dam is also fed by lake Tahoe, which has seen record amounts of snow. Lessard hopes colder weather will continue in the mountains along with decent rainfall around Folsom, so the snow melt won’t need to be released.
At the moment, the dam sits almost half full, but it has also released more water than its currently holding — something Lessard said is not uncommon because they need to have extra space at Folsom to protect residents from flooding, in case of more storms, dump more water.
“Any additional flows and precipitation, especially in rain, will pass right out because we don’t have any more room because of flood management," said Lessard.
He hopes that if the state does receive anymore significant rain, it will fall further to the north and help fill Shasta Reservoir, which can hold more than four times the amount Folsom can.
UC Davis professor Thomas Harter said there is much going on behind the scenes about how we can best keep and use the water in reservoirs, rather than release it. He’s been with the university for 18 years and said the answer is under our feet.
“The place we’re looking for is in the sub-surface because that’s really the only space we have available,” said Harter, a professor of groundwater hydrology.
The next step, Harter explained, will be finding land they can use to flood. He says they’re looking to farmers for help in this space.
“Flood the fields that are currently empty, or to flood a vineyard, or to flood an orchard, in a way that doesn’t damage the crop," he said.
It’s an important step, Harter added, as climate change will likely increase the chance of weather like atmospheric rivers that dump rain.
With the amount of rain and snow already received, Lessard said they're hopeful the reservoir will fill to capacity.
“It’s not certain, but we feel pretty good we will fill all of Folsom reservoir," he said. "Now, as we’re getting to the top and we can’t fill anymore, and there’s still in-flow, that exceeds our outflow and releases, then we’re going to have to ramp-up and increase our releases.”
The reservoir is allowed to fill to capacity come March when the chance of storms becomes less likely to cause flooding.
At the Folsom Dam, Lessard said they, too, are also looking at future proofing the area by raising the dam.
“It’s going to be a three-and-a-half-foot raise," he said. "And I know that doesn’t sound like much.”
But Lessard says that three-foot raise will allow for greater flood protection but does not add to the amount it can hold and why finding efficient ways to store water underground is so important.