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It's been raining a lot in California. Can the influx of water be put to good use?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

An old song says it never rains in Southern California, but it pours. Still true. A series of atmospheric rivers, as they're called, soaked the state in recent days. Other times in recent years, the state has suffered severe drought. Both phenomena are the business of Karla Nemeth, director of the California Department of Water Resources.

KARLA NEMETH: This is my second big drought and second big flood.

INSKEEP: She's thinking about how California could adapt to climate change by capturing the water when there's too much to use when there's not enough. The most recent storm was a case in point.

NEMETH: It came into the Bay Area and started moving southeast down into the central coast in Southern California. And what it did is it stalled over the LA Basin, and that's what created the multiple days of record-setting rain and created the challenges that we saw around localized flooding, land movement, landslides and those sorts of things.

INSKEEP: I'm looking at a photo of the Los Angeles River - very famous river for being concrete, for having a big concrete channel where I think it, perhaps most famously, is used for car chases in movies.

NEMETH: Yes.

INSKEEP: But it's now completely, completely full. What do you make of that?

NEMETH: Well, the LA River was actually put into that concrete in the 1930s after a large, devastating flood. But we know a lot more now about what it takes to manage floodwaters, how to do it in ways that are more protective of the public, that essentially enable us to actualize other kinds of benefits, like improvements to water quality, capturing and reusing that water. And that's - it's that holistic kind of thinking that is the approach to flood management in the 21st century.

INSKEEP: OK. Help me out here because I know - Los Angeles - you've got high mountains on one side. You've got the ocean on the other side. I guess the old goal of flood control would be to get the water through the city safely to the other side and out into the ocean.

NEMETH: As quickly as possible.

INSKEEP: You're telling me that now you might like to stop it somewhere?

NEMETH: Yeah. A important approach to addressing that is to divert flood flows intentionally upstream of the LA River up in the mountains as it moves through the system so that we are spreading it out and spreading it out safely, recharging groundwater basins, really working with the environment instead of in conflict with the environment. And that's the extreme precipitation-drought cycle water management we want to get into in a big way in California.

INSKEEP: Is there anything you can do about the wider region being drier? I think of snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas and elsewhere that is supposed to be ultimately melted and diverted for water for California cities. There's less and less of that over time.

NEMETH: There will be less and less snowpack over time. And so really, throughout the state, we're focused on, how do we prepare all of our infrastructure, dams and flood bypasses to essentially capture what's going to come more frequently as rain, less as snow? And really, the name of the game is, how do we store that water? In particular, how do we store that water underground? - 'cause California has significant groundwater overdraft problems that we are now proactively managing, too.

INSKEEP: Overdraft - the term that people know from their checking accounts. You're taking out more than you've got.

NEMETH: Exactly, taking out more than you have. And as a result of the - two droughts ago, California passed a law to manage its groundwater basins, and that has been a game changer out in California because we have got a lot of agriculture in California. And then the other things we're going to need to do is people need to use water more efficiently, and we need to up our game when it comes to water recycling.

INSKEEP: What keeps you up at night?

NEMETH: Really large storm events, things called - we've heard a lot in the press about ARkStorms, and that's a storm of the kind we just saw, but it's a storm that occurs, you know, almost every day for 30 or 40 days.

INSKEEP: So you need an ark, basically.

NEMETH: You need an ark, yes.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) Go on.

NEMETH: And that's in the historical record, of course. We have seen that kind of extensive flooding, but it was long ago, and there were far fewer people. And for as much attention that we pay to droughts, which is absolutely crucial, flood is a different animal. And I think people can underappreciate just how dangerous water can be when we have high water and flooding.

INSKEEP: Karla Nemeth is director of the California Department of Water Resources. Thanks so much.

NEMETH: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Devan Schwartz
Devan Schwartz is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition. He is an experienced audio professional who, in addition to his work with NPR, has worked with such organizations as BBC, Slate, the New York Times, and various public radio stations.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.