Marine water managers gain an advantage in weather science

Marine water managers gain an advantage in weather science

Rising water surrounds hammocks and a barbecue grill at Stafford Lake Park in Novato, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023. The reservoir reached maximum capacity after heavy rain. (Alan Dibb/Marine Independent Journal)

Water management may look different in Marin County as agencies collaborate to better understand extreme weather.

The Northern Marin Water District, Marin Municipal Water District and Marin County joined the Western Weather and Extreme Water Center affiliate group in January. The group conducts research on “atmospheric rivers” and other extreme weather events to improve water management, mitigate flood risks, and increase the reliability of water supplies.

“With climate change in the river atmosphere, major storms are becoming very dynamic and will change over time,” said Tony Williams, general manager of the North Marin Region. “There could be more of it, it could be all at once, it could be very different from how we've seen rainfall historically.”

“So, that's the concern, is to be on top of the science as best we can, and that's CW3E,” Williams said. “We don't have that kind of experience, but they do, and they're already working with other districts.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says atmospheric rivers are storms that transport most of the water vapor out of the tropics. According to the Water Affiliates Group, heavy rainfall resulting from these intense water flows is responsible for approximately 85% of flooding on the West Coast.

One way membership can help the area is through the Novato Creek watershed and Stafford Dam, Williams said.

In June 2023, a Marin County civil grand jury issued a report saying that Stafford Dam was in compliance with safety regulations, but the regulations did not include the latest research on climate change. The jury recommended that the governorate's water districts cooperate with scientific institutions.

Williams said the Northern Marin Water District is considering modifications to the dam. The project will allow the spillway to be elevated so the agency can hold an additional 3 feet of water, or approximately 237 million gallons.

“But obviously we want to do it at the end of the rainy season,” Williams said. “We want to catch the last storm, and that's where CW3E comes in. They'll help us manage that last storm and move through the winter.

The Water Affiliates Group can advise when it is best to raise the dam spillway. The group, based at the University of California, San Diego, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, aims to improve forecasts and modeling of extreme weather and provide a more accurate understanding of its impacts on the environment, society and economy.

In the fall, the county and the Northern Marin Water District collaborated to create a comprehensive study of the Novato Creek watershed, where Stafford Dam is located. It will include analyzes of the dam structure, inflows into the lake, and other details. A draft study is expected to be completed this summer, according to Williams.

“We're kind of waiting to see how our study of the Novato Creek watershed turns out, and then hopefully eventually the Western Weather and Water Extremes Center will help us understand how to track and predict how atmospheric rivers will impact the watershed down to that point,” Williams said. On a large scale, but we're not there yet.”

NOVATO CA - OCTOBER 14: Water levels continue to fall at Stafford Lake in Novato, California on Friday, October 14, 2021. (Sherry Lavars/Marin Independent Journal)
NOVATO CA – OCTOBER 14: Water levels continue to fall at Stafford Lake in Novato, California on Friday, October 14, 2021. (Sherry Lavars/Marin Independent Journal)

The main benefit of joining the group is not so much flood management as long-term planning, said Paul Siler, an official with the Marin Municipal Water District.

The agency operates five reservoirs in the Mount Tamalpais watershed and two in Western Marin that depend on rainfall. Predicting when drier winters will occur will help the district better plan when it will need to purchase more water from Sonoma County.

“The more information we have about rainfall, especially for us anyway, on a seasonal or semi-seasonal basis, i.e. forecasts outside of a month-long time frame, i.e. from a few weeks to a few months, would really help us make management decisions.” Water,” Cellier said.

These long-term predictions may be even further, as the research is still developing, Seller said.

“So when we sit there in August, and we know that December and January are going to be dry, that will allow us to make informed management decisions about how much water we should be purchasing,” Siler said.

Membership in the group provides access to better data and briefings to help the county improve public safety and operations, said Roger Levinthal, county engineer.

Membership in the Water Affiliates Group costs $25,000 for one year. The Marin Water District and the county Flood Control District, which are smaller agencies compared to the group's other branches, have negotiated joint fees, Williams said. Marin County and the Northern Marin District each paid $5,000, and the Marin Municipal Water District paid $15,000.

“I think what this joint membership shows is that we work together, being the two large water districts in the county and the county itself,” Williams said.

“The water industry, if you think about it as a whole, is one part of it,” Siler said. “These floods and weather events impact so many aspects of our lives that we don't even think about them.”

Water flows through a breach in a levee along Novato Creek south of Interstate 37 in Novato, California, Monday, January 9, 2023. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)
Water flows through a breach in a levee along Novato Creek south of Interstate 37 in Novato, California, Monday, January 9, 2023. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)

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