Executive Summary for August 28th

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. 28, 2015 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Strong Progress on Water Conservation

Californians stepped up their efforts in water conservation in July, boosting total savings to 31 percent from 27 percent in June. Both exceeded the 25 percent requirement imposed by Gov. Jerry Brown earlier this year. The fact that water conservation improved during one of the hottest summer months shows that the populace is at last heeding the message that California’s four-year drought is serious.

Record rainfall in parts of Southern California likely contributed to the July cuts, but state officials still lauded Californians for saving so much water amid scorching temperatures.

Statewide, more than 70 percent of all water agencies met or came within one percentage point of meeting their conservation targets in July. Just four water suppliers missed their target by 15 percent or more. That’s better performance, in both cases, than was witnessed in June.

“We’ve got a lot of people hitting homeruns here,” Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, said in a conference call, according to the Desert Sun newspaper. “And we’ve got a few people who are striking out or can’t find the ballpark.”

Human Actions Have Made Droughts Worse

A team of scientists, writing this week in the journal Nature, have declared what many critics of California water policy have long suspected: The state’s current four-year drought has been made worse by human activity. And future droughts will be even more difficult unless significant changes are made.

The authors, mostly experts at the University of California, say that the state’s rapid growth has placed additional strain on water resources, wildlife and habitats. Its failure over many decades to regulate groundwater extraction has been a particular trouble spot.

Climate change has played a role, too, but is clearly secondary in this argument.

“Overuse and obsolete management of scarce water resources are exacerbating the current drought’s impacts,” the authors write. “Past leaders legislated for and invested in measures and infrastructure to boost supplies as demand grew. Now the state is nearing its water limits and can no longer simply build its way out.”

The close observer of this drought has also become aware that California has no coherent plan in place to deal with such severe water shortages. The response to the present drought has been conceived on the fly – essentially in crisis mode.

Planning for future droughts will become vital, especially to manage important watersheds, which are critical to gathering and storing the precipitation California requires.

“California still lacks comprehensive drought management plans for land, rivers and wetlands,” they write. “Little policy addresses how upland changes affect water balance across a catchment.”

Who should answer this call? The authors don’t state clearly, other than citing “policymakers” and “water and environment managers.” But work on this scale will require an expansive vision from a leader or leaders prepared to make it their career. Because it won’t happen overnight and will require persistence.

Farms Doing Well Despite Drought. But Farmworkers…?

A new study from the nonprofit Pacific Institute finds that many California farms earned near-record revenue, despite the fact that the ongoing drought took more than 600,000 acres of farmland out of production. Agricultural employment also soared to a record 417,000 jobs.

The paradox can be explained because farmers adopted more efficient irrigation methods and switched to more profitable crops, including tree nuts such as pistachios and almonds. But it all came at the expense of overdrafting groundwater resources, a still largely unregulated resource.

“Undoubtedly, even though we had high revenues, it would’ve been higher without the drought,” Heather Cooley, water program director at the institute, told the Los Angeles Times.

On the flipside, things aren’t so great for farmworkers. Although overall farm employment may have increased, it seems the available jobs are not what they used to be.

National Public Radio spoke with farmworkers at a strawberry field in Watsonville. They are earning less money because the berries are smaller this year. Since they are paid for each box of strawberries they harvest, it takes more work to fill a box with small berries, so each worker harvests fewer boxes in a day.

One worker lives in a tiny apartment with his wife, Dominga, and four children. Dominga can’t work because she injured her back picking strawberries. The reporter used only first names because many of the workers are undocumented migrants.

“We don’t have enough for food,” Dominga said in Spanish. “For example, right now we have to pay rent, and bills, and they’re expensive.”

Top Photo: This April 3, 2015, aerial photo shows golf course communities bordering the desert in Cathedral City, California. The state’s largest water providers cut their water use by a combined 31 percent in July (by Chris Carlson, Associated Press).

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