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Executive Summary for August 17th

For an overview of the latest news on the California drought, we’ve organized the most recent developments in a curated summary.

Published on Aug. 17, 2015 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

The Drought so Far: A Midsummer Gut Check

We’re about midway through summer, and we know Californians did pretty well in June, meeting the state’s 25 percent water conservation mandate. So it’s a good time to take stock.

Charles Fishman, author of The Big Thirst, writes in the New York Times that California is not just surviving the drought, but “doing fabulously.” It leads the nation in job creation, and agriculture is actually growing.

Among other bright points, Fishman notes the “quietly astonishing” progress in Southern California, which has reduced water consumption while adding 4 million people over the past two decades. Over the past year, incentives have removed more lawn area than Las Vegas managed in 16 years.

Fishman deals too lightly with one of the state’s biggest challenges: groundwater. He cites California’s new groundwater management law, approved last year. “The law is so innovative,” he writes, “it will eventually remake water use across the state, and if other states pay attention, across the nation.”

That’s an awfully optimistic view of a law that is completely untested and won’t take full effect until 2025, giving well owners two decades to further deplete the state’s aquifers. Let’s pause and remember that groundwater meets 40 percent of the state’s water demand in normal years, as much as 60 percent in drought years, and could take thousands of years to recharge.

Californians today consume about 25 percent less water per person than two decades ago. Farmers are growing more food without additional water. The state is also ramping up a number of water projects to continue this progress, and the trend is toward smaller, more efficient projects that meet local needs.

“A drought pushes us and shows where we are not prepared, and also shows us what is working in one place, and what may work in other places,” Martha Davis of the Inland Empire Utilities Agency told the Los Angeles Times.

The L.A. Times article paints a rosy picture of micro-scale water recycling projects and new, frugal, water-sipping housing developments. But it makes nary a mention of future population growth, the effects of climate change or that California’s natural water supplies are already vastly oversubscribed.

Another view comes from the always thought-provoking Circle of Blue, which hosted a virtual town hall meeting on the status of the drought. It quotes Nadine Bailey, operations officer of the Family Water Alliance, a conservative-leaning group that represents agricultural interests. She spoke about the wildfires burning across California and their affect on water supply.

“That wood that’s burning is our watershed. It’s the place that holds our water during summer and in the winter,” said Bailey. “We need to stop drawing circles around things in an old paradigm to save them and look at an integrative environmental policy that takes people into account and looks down the road 50 to 100 years with our environmental policy to fix some of the mistakes that we’ve made in the last 20 years.”

So yes, it’s a good time to take stock. It’s also a good time to remember that the work of managing water scarcity in California will never be finished.

More Ratepayer Revolt

A property owner in Goleta, a wealthy community bordering Santa Barbara, has filed a lawsuit against his water provider, claiming water-rate increases violate the state constitution.

John A. Ruskey, trustee of the Ruskey Living Trust, sued the Goleta Water District in Superior Court, claiming it failed to give proper notice after changing its rates on June 16. The fee increases took effect July 1. The lawsuit seems to hinge on a technicality: Ruskey claims the district provided improper notice because his property is owned by a living trust, not himself as an individual.

Yet the case again emphasizes the effort some water users are willing to make to avoid paying more for water.

In Goleta, where the median income is 22 percent higher than the state average, the water district recommended rather modest rate increases for large parcels. The rate for urban agricultural customers was proposed to increase from $1.42 to $1.80 per 100 cubic feet of water, with an additional temporary drought surcharge ranging from $1.57 to $5.73 per 100 cubic feet, depending on the severity of the drought.

Over the hill in Paso Robles, a citizen’s group is fighting the formation of a groundwater management district, a requirement of state law passed last year. The district would tax well owners in order to collect and analyze data on the groundwater aquifer. Opponents say the aquifer is the only one in the region that is not overdrafted and other measures can be undertaken to monitor its condition without resorting to a new government agency and new fees.

Meanwhile, area residents who can’t afford lawyers are relying on government food handouts to survive higher prices and declining farm jobs. The Foodbank of Santa Barbara County is handing out staple items like rice, beans, pasta and dried milk, and officials say demand is higher than ever because of the drought.

“We have many, many more people needing food,” development manager Judith Monte says. “The drought impact seems to be a little more pervasive than people think.”

Photo courtesy Associated Press / Rich Pedroncelli

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