And then the rains came: California and the western drought
So the California part of the Western drought is over, or maybe it isn't
The good news: It rained and snowed heavily in California off and on from December through February.
The bad news: The series of storms that dropped the much-needed precipitation probably was too much at once and, at the same time, not enough to erase the “drought” label from the entire Golden State. The series of massive storms that brought record rainfall and also left behind flooding, mudslides, sinkholes, evacuations and millions of dollars of damage to the 780-foot Oroville Dam, north of Sacramento. By Presidents’ Day weekend, much of the state was bracing for another bout of severe weather.
The U.S. Drought Monitor [http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/] has removed the designation of “exceptional drought” from California for the first time in several years. However, more than half of the state is still experiencing moderate to extreme drought conditions, with parts of Ventura, Santa Barbara, Kern, and Los Angeles counties more severe than in the rest of the state. And, in spite of replenished reservoirs and improved snowpack conditions, groundwater aquifers, forests, and endangered fish species may take several years to recover from drought impacts, according to climatologists.
State climatologist Michael Anderson told the Los Angeles Times that for most of California, the end of the drought “is in the realm of possibility now, which is kind of a nice thing to think about.” But, if plumbing customers ask: “Can I stop conserving water at home and go back to watering my lawn, washing my car and taking long showers?” Here’s the answer given by Peter Gleick, a hydroclimatologist and chief scientist at the Pacific Institute, Oakland, in an article for the San Jose Mercury: “You can, but you shouldn’t.”
“The efficient use of water should be a way of life, not a temporary reaction to crisis,” Gleick writes. “Every gallon of water you don’t use saves money, leaves water in reservoirs and underground for the future, reduces energy use and protects ecosystems. Californians did a great job conserving water during the drought without serious hardship. We should keep up those efforts, even when it’s wet. Ultimately, ‘Is the drought over?’ is the wrong question. We should ask, ‘Are we managing water in a sustainable manner for the long haul’? The answer to that is still ‘no’.”
Call a plumber!
So what did the recent weather mean for plumbing professionals? Throughout the state of California, it seems, plumbers got the initial calls for leaks within residences and commercial building walls which homeowners attributed to potential broken or leaking pipes. The water flow typically was the result of leaks in damaged roofs revealed when heavy rains followed a long dry spell. There were calls, as well, that located both plumbing leaks and roof breaches. Given that plumbers are getting a lot of these calls, it may be an introduction to new customers when there is a genuine plumbing issue.
In the south end of California, companies also reported construction delays and a rise in calls about clogged area drains. “We don’t usually get a lot of rain and when we do get heavy rains the concern is draining water away from the home,” says Julie Riddle, director of marketing for the Bill Howe Family of Companies Plumbing, Heating & Air in San Diego. The company, in business since 1980, does mostly residential work and about 40 percent commercial and building management. “These drains — patio drains and French drains — get clogged with dirt and debris when it’s dry and then back up and we do get those calls.” The company also has gotten some calls about older water heater installations not on stands in garages that flooded. Riddle says that most water heaters on platforms aren’t endangered unless the flooding is excessive.
At J Geyer Plumbing in San Diego, which specializes in new construction, so much rain in an area where rainfall totals typically are lower meant some logistical headaches that lead to construction delays. Rain wreaked havoc with crew scheduling due to short dry spells between storms. “We had to shut down sites because of the rain,” says Hailey Martensen, marketing and operations.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, contractors that handle residential and commercial accounts are tallying calls about rain-related problems. Raymond Bonetti, vice president of Frank Bonetti Plumbing in Castro Valley, says that the years-long drought brought drainline carry issues from increased water conservation. Then, with the current typical rainy season, too much water too fast has lead to problems with existing and often neglected drains and equipment. The company, strictly commercial service and maintenance with 21 trucks, has been in business since 1955.
“One of our buildings today — the building manager called and wanted to a quote for installing some downspouts because they had water pouring out of the pipes off of the roof down the outside of the building. We sent one of our guys over there and it wasn’t that they needed downspouts. It was that all of their regular drains were plugged up and water was coming out of their overflow drains. When you haven’t had rain in a long time, before the rainy season starts, it’s important get up on that roof and clean the leaves, debris and whatever else off. It’s like having a problem with your roof that doesn’t show up because there hasn’t been any rain.”
The company also has gone out to deal with four feet of water in truck loading docks, Bonetti says. “We’ve been out there pumping those out. The water had no place to go. Most of them have an ejector pump in them that they haven’t checked in x number of years because it’s been so dry. We also get calls about catch basins in the parking lot that are overflowing or flooding and V ditches. We’ve actually gone out—plumbers we’re talking about—and cleaned out the trash and overgrowth in small creeks behind buildings.” The company is urging customers to do a little preventive maintenance before the next storms hit, so they don’t get flooded out.
In the East Bay, Mr. Rooter of Oakland has handled a lot of drain issues, says Steve Ferguson, president of the franchise for 16 years, converted from an independent plumbing business that had been in business since 1924. His market area, from El Cerrito to Alameda, includes Oakland and Berkeley. “This area has a quite a few older homes — 75 years old and up — with basements. “Down in those basements, we’re seeing flooding out of gas appliances like water heaters and furnaces. Basements get wet because they’re old, not totally sealed, have developed cracks in the concrete, so the ground water comes up in the basement. You have the water heater sitting on the floor and suddenly there is four inches of water, and we can end up replacing the sump pump and the water heater.
Customers that have never had a problem with wet basements are ankle deep during this record rainy season and are asking for sump pumps to be installed, Ferguson says. “All of a sudden they want a sump pump, so we have get in dig a hole and put a sump pump in there or we’re replacing sump pumps that have failed,” Ferguson says.
Another drought-related phenomenon is that sump pumps in basements and parking lots, and parking lot drains have not been maintained. “Drains are clogged with debris and pumps are flood damaged or burned out from disuse or lack of routine maintenance.”