Giving a Dam: California's Water Infrastructure Problem

Recent news about the Oroville Dam crisis has highlighted some of California’s more serious infrastructure problems. At 49 years old, the Oroville Dam is at the end of its designated lifespan, along with nearly 4,000 other dams across the country. But it’s not old age alone that’s causing California water problems, it’s also old ideas. For example, our current infrastructure was built to route stormwater away from us and to the ocean as fast as possible. Stormwater was seen as potentially hazardous waste, so much so, in fact, that it was illegal for Californians to capture rainwater for landscaping and groundwater recharge purposes up until 2013. The State’s 5-year drought coupled with the incredible winter storm events of 2017, however, are forcing California to rethink its narrative on stormwater and consider innovative, sustainable water sources.


Under California Prop. 1, the Water Quality, Supply and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014, the State Water Resources Control Board received $200 million for the Storm Water Grant Program. The Board’s Strategy to Optimize Resource Management of Storm Water unit (STORMS) recently published its 10-year vision and implementation strategy for stormwater capture, which includes 23 projects. Nine of these projects are already underway and incorporate the development of watershed management guidelines and tools, the removal of barriers to stormwater capture, and the generation of stormwater data systems. The hope is that these programs can be implemented quickly so that the State can gain a stronger foothold in its battle against the drought.

Improving California’s infrastructure includes making water-conscious choices. While there may be little we can do about our metropolitan concrete jungles, new development should be low-impact and opt for ground space and pervious materials that allow for slow runoff and groundwater recharge rather than impenetrable asphalt and concrete that route stormwater directly to the drains. Additionally, Californians must warm up to the idea of innovative, sustainable water sources, such as water reuse and recycling. The most challenging and contentious step, however, is for Californians to agree to make necessary investments in the State’s water infrastructure