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Executive Summary for October 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 Oct. 22, 2015 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

GOP Group Demands El Niño Water Storage Solutions

A group of 14 Republican congressional representatives today planned to release a letter urging President Barack Obama and California Gov. Jerry Brown to take immediate steps to store the heavy rainfall runoff expected from El Niño weather conditions this winter.

“If it does rain this winter and we let it all go to the ocean again like we did three years ago, the whole state is going to run out of water,” Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, told the Los Angeles Times.

The letter has all the feel of a political stunt. It’s unclear what the group expects state and federal officials to do to capture storm runoff. Few solutions are possible in the near term, as it won’t be possible to build significant new water storage systems in time for winter.

According to the L.A. Times, the letter specifically asks how federal and state agencies plan to capture precipitation from El Niño, or what the timeline is to develop a plan if one doesn’t exist. It also asks if the agencies would lift regulations that have limited water exports from northern California to central and southern California.

State officials said environmental regulations aren’t to blame.

“The capacity of the federal and state water projects – not water quality or environmental regulations – is likely to be the limiting factor on how much water is moved into storage,” said Nancy Vogel, a spokeswoman for the California Natural Resources Agency.

In recent years, state and federal agencies have taken a number of steps to boost water delivery and storage when big storms created a surplus.

In December 2013, when the drought was already well under way, they boosted water diversions from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta as soon as protected fish were out of danger. This allowed more water to be stored in San Luis Reservoir, a supply that serves Rep. Nunes’ farmer constituents.

In the last significant California floods, which struck during the 2005-06 winter, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation gave away water for free to nearly anyone in the San Joaquin Valley who was willing to store it by flooding their land. That’s because the bureau’s Millerton Reservoir on the San Joaquin River was full, and officials were concerned heavy runoff spilling through Friant Dam at the reservoir would overwhelm levees downstream.

It was a tremendous windfall to many farmers who were able to take the free water. The give-away is permitted by a clause within Reclamation water contracts.

The State Department of Water Resources has similar contract provisions to offer water at steeply discounted prices when a surplus is available.

What’s really be needed in winters like this is an organized program to flood farmland, similar to the way the land was flooded naturally before it became used for farming. The Central Valley was once a vast wetland, which is how it developed such important groundwater reserves. That groundwater is now being dramatically overtapped to keep farms irrigated amid the drought.

A program to turn some farms back into floodplains – or at least allow them to be flooded again in winter – could restore groundwater supplies and reduce the strain on ageing levees during wet winters.

There are proposals by Rep. Nunes’s own constituents under discussion right now to do just that. These proposals might be a better place for Republican congressional members to exert their influence.

Storms Prompt Emergency Declaration in Los Angeles County

It comes unusually early in the run-up to winter, but Los Angeles County has officially declared a state of emergency as a result of flooding and mudslides caused by heavy rain last weekend.

The decision follows mudslides in northern L.A. County that closed several major highways, buried hundreds of cars and killed at least one man.

The declaration makes the county eligible to receive state and federal disaster funds to help recover from damages caused by the storms.

It’s likely to be the first of many such declarations in the months ahead if the latest El Niño storm forecasts hold true. Those projections indicate Southern California is likely to see more precipitation than normal, a typical result of a strong El Niño. But the forecasts also caution that these storms are unlikely to end the California drought. That’s because the state is running such a huge precipitation deficit after four years of drought. And because what it really needs to end the drought is heavy snow in the northern Sierra Nevada, which is unlikely, because El Niño storms tend to target the south of the state and tend to be warmer than normal, producing more rain than snow.

So, Uncle Sam better get his checkbook ready. It’s likely Los Angeles County is just the first to get in line for federal disaster money, but the queue is likely to grow longer.

Or, as a Bloomberg headline put it more simply yesterday: “The Strongest El Niño in Decades is Going to Mess with Everything.”

Top image: Farmer Tony Oliveira points to a river bottom covered in flood water in Lemoore, Calif, in 2006. Some farmers in his area got free water from the federal government following the storms that year.

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