Executive Summary for September 21st

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

Published on Sep. 21, 2015 Read time Approx. 5 minutes

Thousands Without Water, Yet Relief Funds Pile Up

There are thousands of homeowners in California whose private drinking water wells have gone dry, yet many have not received any assistance from the state, which has more than $300 million available to help.

“That is not an appropriate response,” Omar Carillo, an advocate at the Community Water Center, a nonprofit group based in Visalia, told KQED News. “If you have an individual home and they haven’t had water for 18 months, that is a big problem. That is a huge problem.”

KQED profiles Maria Medina and her family in Okieville, a small unincorporated town in Tulare County. They are washing dishes with bottled water in 16-ounce containers they are buying themselves. Their well has gone dry and they’ve received no help to obtain a supplemental water supply.

“It takes about half of one of these bottles to wash a single dish. I have to use enough water to get the soap off,” Maria Medina says. “A year and a half and no water. It’s really hard.”

Part of the problem is that Medina didn’t report that her well went dry because she didn’t know any assistance was available. But it might not have helped, because — remarkably — the state doesn’t allow its drought relief funds to pay for emergency water tanks at rental properties.

Tulare County officials say they are “not in a position where we can do any type of enforcement toward landlords.”

In neighboring Fresno County, officials say they have no way to track the number of wells that have gone dry.

Tulare County says it has installed 360 emergency water tanks at homes, but estimates 1,700 homes have had wells go dry. Fresno County has installed just eight emergency water tanks, but estimates at least 150 homes in the county are without water.

Eric Lamoureux, a spokesman for the California Office of Emergency Services, says the state was caught off guard by the severity of the drought.

“This tank program was something we had never done in the history of California,” he says, “so understanding what the logistical challenges were going to be on the front end was very difficult. We’ve never dealt with a drought response of this magnitude in California.”

Some Farmers Allowed to Divert Water Again

State officials on Friday announced that some 238 senior water-rights holders can once again resume water diversions from the Sacramento and Feather rivers and from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Their diversions were banned in June as an emergency measure to manage scarce water supplies. It was the first time in nearly 40 years that so-called pre-1914 senior water rights were hit with a curtailment order.

The lifting of that order does not mean the drought has eased. It comes merely because the peak of the farm irrigation season has passed, so demand on water for farming has dropped off. Thousands of “junior” post-1914 water rights are still banned from diverting water.

The practical effect of Friday’s order is limited. It likely won’t do much for this year’s harvest but will improve farm fields and orchards as they get ready for the dormant season, said Mike Wade of the California Farm Water Coalition.

“It’s too late for this year’s crop,” Wade told The Sacramento Bee. “I think it’s positive and we’re grateful for that.”

Tough Choices to Save Wildlife as Drought Persists

Biologists are hauling water by hand and fencing important ponds to protect the last of California’s Western pond turtles. Refuge managers have been forced to let some wetland areas go dry while they cross their fingers that ducks and geese will somehow survive as they migrate through a state with almost no habitat this year.

These are some of the challenges California’s stressed wildlife managers are confronting as the drought stretches into fall. It’s a critical time for animal activity as various species migrate to prepare for winter, to find enough food and habitat.

“It may be that there are places … where they blink out, and where we can’t support them anymore,” Rosi Dagit, a senior conservation biologist for the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains, told KPCC public radio. “How sad would that be? It just makes me so depressed.”

Western pond turtles are the only turtle native to California, and there may be 15 or fewer population groups left in the state. The species is not yet listed as an endangered species in the state, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded in April that special status may be warranted. To keep the remaining turtles alive, biologists like Dagit have organized volunteers to haul water by hand to keep ponds full, and called on assistance from fire department water tanker trucks. One population of turtles is being kept alive thanks to a private property owner who happens to have viable habitat remaining.

In some cases, a single imperiled species could endanger others if it blinks out. Such is the case with the pinyon pine, which is declining because of warmer winters and could be done in by the state’s prolonged drought. As the trees die off, the same fate is possible for species that rely on it, including birds like the Pinyon jay and Clark’s nutcracker.

This raises deeper questions about habitat protection. Is it possible for the pinyon pine to establish itself in a cooler location, perhaps at greater altitude? Do the bird species that depend on it have a suitable habitat elsewhere?

“The animals and plants that we think we’re protecting today may need to shift to other areas, may need to move up mountains, may need to move further north,” said Cameron Barrows, a research ecologist with the Center for Conservation Biology’s Desert Studies Initiative at U.C. Riverside. “Unless we have thought that through very carefully, we may not have created the opportunities for them to do those shifts.”

Top image: In this July 1, 2015 picture, Don Lozano looks at his dusty car in the community of Okieville on the outskirts of Tulare, Calif. Numerous residents of the unincorporated town have seen their drinking water wells go dry, but have received no assistance from the state to obtain other water supplies. (Gregory Bull, Associated Press)

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