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Executive Summary for September 22nd

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. 22, 2015 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Growing Rice in a Drought? Aussies Marvel

A group of Australian rice farmers recently toured the farms of their Sacramento Valley competitors, and were blown away by conditions here.

For one thing, water used to grow rice is exponentially cheaper in California than in Australia. Aussies pay about $200 per megaliter, versus about $18.60 in California (there are about 1.2 megaliters in an acre-foot).

“They [Californian farmers] were quite upset with the amount of money that they were spending on water,” Amy McAllister, an agricultural science student who traveled with the farmers, told Australia’s ABC Rural news agency.

McAllister also marveled at how limited the water cutbacks have been for California rice growers, at least compared to cutbacks endured by Australian farmers during that country’s so-called “millennium drought.”

“Most areas had a 75 percent water allocation and they were in their fourth year of drought, which was really surprising,” she said.

The really surprising thing is how she explains this: “I think it comes back to the government realizing there’s a shortage of food.”

In fact, there’s plenty of rice around. Carryover supplies of rice in the United States increased this year, partly because of increased competition from growers in Asia.

The real reason California rice growers enjoy a relative abundance of water is they have some of the most robust water rights in the state. They’re also really good at marketing. McAllister, for instance, was impressed by the nexus between rice growing and waterfowl habitat that California growers have nurtured, noting that growers charge duck hunters as much as $10,000 per season for use of a single duck-hunting blind on their land.

“One thing they do really well over there is they use social media,” McAllister said. “Nearly every farmer has a Twitter account and they’re constantly putting up photographs of birds and wildlife.”

Hottest Year on Record in California

The National Weather Service reports today that 2015 has been the hottest year ever recorded in California so far.

It goes without saying that heat generally goes along with drought. But it bears emphasizing that abnormally warm temperatures have worsened the drought. Had it not been so hot this year, the effects of drought might not have been so severe in terms of water shortages, fire risk, habitat losses and other consequences, according to a recent study by scientists at the University of California and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Not only does high heat intensify evaporative stress on soil, it has a powerful effect in reducing snowpack, a key to reliable water supply for the state. In addition to decreased snowpack, higher temperatures can cause the snowpack to melt earlier, dramatically decreasing the amount of water available for agriculture in summer when it is most needed.

Looking at conditions last year, the study found that if air temperatures had been cooler – similar to the 1916–2012 average – there would have been an 86 percent chance that the winter snowpack would have been greater, the spring–summer runoff higher, and the spring–summer soil moisture deficits smaller.

“If average temperatures keep rising, we will be looking at more serious droughts, even if the historical variability of precipitation stays the same,” lead author Shraddhanand Shukla told phys.org.

Cities Moving to Permit Artificial Turf

Numerous cities around California are amending their ordinances to allow residents to replace their lawns with artificial turf.

The changes come in response to two new state laws. Earlier this month, Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 349, which prohibits homeowner associations from banning artificial turf. And last week, the Legislature approved AB 1164, which also prohibits cities and governments from banning artificial turf. That bill now awaits the governor’s signature.

Over the past several weeks, the cities of Downey and Norwalk amended their ordinances to permit artificial turf. And the cities of Cerritos and Sacramento are preparing to do the same.

It’s a mixed bag for the state. Artificial turf undoubtedly saves water – it requires none. But it brings a host of potentially undesirable side effects that we’ve discussed before: It can be dangerously hot; it can become a breeding ground for germs; it eliminates habitat for insects and birds; and it may expose people and wildlife to dangerous chemicals.

Top image: In this photo taken on Friday, October 10, 2014, rice farmer Mike DeWitt looks over some of his harvested rice fields near Davis, Calif. DeWitt is among the Sacramento Valley farmers who planted 25 percent less rice than normal because of water cutbacks, which is impacting migratory birds and other wildlife that depend on flooded rice fields for habitat. (Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press)

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