Big Sur Area Landslide and Water Paradox

How can a new water paradigm reverse extreme weather events such as the Big Sur area mudslide? Paradoxically, the last week’s precipitation whiplash was caused because the Golden State is running out of water.

The flash floods and mudslides caused a collapse of the iconic Highway 1 in California. Why are California, Australia, Syria, or Spain dry and getting drier each year? Why do they and the rest of the world get heatwaves and soaring temperature records each summer? In looking for answers, it is hard to overlook the fact that their rivers are running dry.  

Just a few months ago, devastating wildfires in California and Australia caused enormous damage to these ecosystems and surpassed astronomical financial losses.  

According to a recently published study published on January 12th, 2021 in AGU (Advanced Earth and Space Science) Journal and another research paper published the previous year in Nature Climate Change, California’s rainy season now starts a month later than it used to. Why? 

The reason is spatial and temporal precipitation distribution.  Yale360 wrote about it just a few days ago. Why are their watersheds losing water? 

The current water management paradigm focuses on treating rainwater as a waste to be discarded as soon as possible. The snowmelt does not feed the water streams but washes out to the ocean instead. The old ways are hard to break. Is the lack of common sense leading to a collapse of a thriving economy? Allow me to explain California’s extreme weather patterns, as I described to my friends during my visit to the Big Sur Area in April 2017, coincidently around the corner from the current road damage.

Runoffs accelerate soil erosion and landscape metamorphosis.

The primary problem is the extension between the periods of dry weather and a subsequent influx of torrential rains. The pace and intensity of violent storms and dry periods seem to be increasing worldwide, too. As heavy precipitation now drenches the coastline, it is paramount to see the correlation between the rainy and rainless seasons. Both extremes are persistently getting more severe. 

A new water paradigm shift is needed to understand rainwater as a vital part of our ecosystems. May I dare to say that rainwater is indispensable for both urban and rural existence? Small water cycles (secondary precipitation) replenish the thirsty aquifers, recharge the low groundwater levels, and bring life to dry riverbeds. 

On January 29th, Spanish-based water management policy consultant Annelies Broekman discussed the water and environment at the World Social Forum 2021. The data show a high level of desertification in watersheds around Madrid. Desert is asserting a claim to southeast Spain. Many experts recommend introducing and cultivating drought-resistant crops, requiring less water conservation as a strategy to adapt to global climate change. 

The question is: Does planting drought-resistant crops help to mitigate the extreme weather patterns?Developing an innovative approach and improving water-efficient irrigation is undoubtedly a necessary step. Is it sufficient? Both weather extremes are persistently getting more severe. 

Somehow we all ignore the cause and effect. 

There is often an underlying human-made element inserted between droughts and floods. 

People forget that it is during the rainy season that they need to provide for times of drought. Plenty of water can be stored and retained. To prepare for the rainless season is to think about water while it rains. 

How do you get ready for droughts?

Water should be allowed to stay where it falls. 

When a lot of water falls in the form of rain, people feel inconvenienced by it and open the quickest drainage and sewage passages to eliminate the excess water. People don’t even call it water anymore. “Runoff” is a new world. Does not life depend on water?

We forget that the more rainwater is drained away and out to the sea (it the neatly built concrete waterways), the less water will stay in the region, and the less precipitation we can expect.  

Unlike temperature, rainfall is spotty and local, heavily influenced by the terrain and the volume of water in the atmosphere. 

Over the centuries, people developed a negative attitude to the muddy puddles after rain. It is a wide misconception that rainwater is unpleasant, and it needs to be discharged. Come to think of it, snow is a very inconvenient element in our urban cities and roads as well. 

By cutting the water off, we are cutting the veins of the most vital part of our ecosystems. We are bleeding the water basin. We are draining and wasting precious resources. We are bleeding the small water cycles necessary for the local precipitation. What is a small water cycle? Perhaps it can be explained by the old adage: what comes up must go down, evaporate, and repeat. If we discard the stormwater, it has flows to the nearest river and eventually to the ocean. And then it comes back with a vengeance. As a part of a large water cycle. Because the old water paradigm disrupts the small water cycles.

In another significant weather event recently, Madrid received the highest snowfall in fifty years. This week the winter temperatures reach mild ten degrees Celsius and are projected to climb higher to balmy 59 F. What happened to the melted snow? The snowmelt was met with the same destiny as the 15-inch rainfall in Big Sur. Considered an expendable excess and useless resource, Madrid’s snowmelt and California’s rainfall rushed to the sea, causing damages. 

A valuable freshwater resource was met with an ill fate.   

California, Spain, Slovakia, and all the countries worldwide need to understand that rain is a gift that needs to be treasured and retained where it falls.  

We need to accept the new water paradigm. Only then will the temperatures be sustained, mild rains will enjoy the comeback with consistency, and the climate will become more stable. People will enjoy gentle rain showers with regular frequency, as in the good old days of Farmer’s Almanac. It will rain less, but regularly. 

Fighting the water scarcity with retaining more water locally is the answer to droughts and floods prevention. 

There are elegant alternatives for dealing with runoff in urban environments. The integral water and land management practices exist as alternatives to ill-designed agricultural methods with no room for rainwater.

There will be plenty of water for food production in Spain. Violence storms will not be causing mudslides and eroding roads in California or Norway. Australian farmers will not be ruined by the fear of water shortages for their thirsty cattle. The wildfires will not have a chance to get re-kindled if there is enough moisture. The need for emigration will not be present in the countries with a sustainable food industry. Because where there is access to sufficient water supply, it is easier to grow food. 


Ing. Michal Kravčík, Ph.D. in hydrology

-Goldman prize recipient, 1999

Ph.D.Thesis: Numerical modeling of drainage channel systems in the East Slovakian lowlands. 

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Translated by: Zuzana Mulkerin