Executive Summary for September 29th

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. 29, 2015 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

The Conservation Problem in Clovis

The city of Clovis in Fresno County is making headlines lately on the issue of water conservation, and not in a good way: The citizens just can’t seem to meet the required 36 percent conservation target, and they’re paying for it.

In the past three months, fines levied by the city against errant residents have reached $500,000. Amazingly, more than one in three city water customers has been fined for failing to meet the target. City officials report that the percentage of water customers who have received penalties over the past three billing periods ranges from 34 percent to 36 percent.

As a whole, Clovis has met the 36 percent requirement in only one month. It is the largest water conservation requirement imposed by the State Water Resources Control Board, meant to target those water agencies that seemed to be profligate water users with lots of room to conserve.

“Clovis’ residences largely consist of single-family homes on relatively large landscaped lots and Clovis is located in a hot, dry climate,’ Luke Serpa, the city utilities director, told The Fresno Bee. “The 36 percent conservation mandate is very hard to achieve.”

What’s even more remarkable about the Clovis situation is that a half-million dollars in fines does not even come close to offsetting the city’s financial losses caused by that conservation. Utility operating costs are relatively fixed, so when it sells less water, that means less revenue, and the red ink starts to grow.

While the city has assessed close to $500,000 in penalties during the last three billings, water usage charges were more than $1.2 million lower than the same period last year. The city’s costs only went down $300,000, for a net loss of approximately $900,000. Even if the penalties were included, the city’s water fund is still short more than $400,000 in just three months.

It also remains to be seen if the city will be fined by the state for failing to attain the 36 percent water conservation requirement.

“Until these uncertainties are resolved, the fees are being held in the water fund, but are being accounted for separately,” Serpa said.

Many other water agencies are in a similar predicament. All utilities are earning less revenue because of water conservation, and many are raising water rates as a result and Clovis is not the only city that has failed to meet its conservation targets. The state has warned it will fine violators, but it appears to be waiting to see if they can bring their customers in line before initiating any enforcement action.

“I have the feeling that once people see they are getting fined they just forget about it and water the heck out of everything,” Clovis homeowner John Guarnera said. “I guess I’m just frustrated.”

U.C. Berkeley to Study Drought Tolerance in Crops

The U.S. Department of Energy is giving U.C. Berkeley $12.3 million to research how crops change their own genetic makeup in response to drought.

A variety of observable plant traits will be followed, such as plant height and grain yield. In addition, leaf and root samples will be taken to investigate responses to drought at the molecular level, including how gene expression changes and which proteins and metabolites are altered.

One of the plants they’ll study is sorghum. Researchers will also track changes in sorghum-associated microbial communities to determine whether they correlate with changes that directly contribute to the crop’s drought tolerance. It is now well known that associations of specific bacteria and fungi with plants and animals have positive effects on the fitness of the host plant. For example, microbes in both plants and humans are known to help fight disease and, in the soil, can help deliver nutrients and other resources to plants.

The researchers expect the project will lead to approaches to improve growth and production of sorghum and other crops under water-limiting conditions in commercial fields and on marginal lands.

The Energy Department’s Genomic Science Program is funding the project through its Office of Biological and Environmental Research.

Top image: The city of Clovis in California’s San Joaquin Valley is not meeting a state water conservation requirement. Though it has fined heavy water users a total of a half-million dollars so far, the city water utility is piling up debt due to the drought, like many others in the state. (Clovis Chamber of Commerce)

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