Executive Summary for November 3rd

For an overview of the latest news on the California drought, we’ve organized the most recent developments in a curated summary, including the most important stories, analysis and data. Our goal is to keep you informed of the day’s most significant events in the field.

Published on Nov. 3, 2015 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

First Real Storm of the Season Brings Hope – and Snow

A modest storm swept across Northern California on Monday, bringing modest rainfall to much of the region. More importantly in terms of the drought, it brought measurable snowfall to the Sierra Nevada.

Automated snow depth gauges reported 2 to 3 inches of new snow in many mountain locations. Ski resorts reported significantly more, in their predictable optimism. Kirkwood Mountain reported 13.5 inches of snow at its base elevation, and 18 inches at its summit.

“Still snowing with the #StokeLevel @9.8,” the resort reported on its Twitter feed around noon on Monday.

At least 12 inches of snow was reported in the Southern Sierra near Mammoth Lakes, according to the Associated Press, with as much as 2 feet possible at upper elevations around the Lake Tahoe Basin.

Rainfall amounts, according to the National Weather Service, were pretty decent in many areas, including 0.97 inches reported in Modesto, 1.06 inches in Stockton, 0.54 inches at Sacramento International Airport and 1.12 inches at Oroville.

It’s going to take a lot more of the same in the coming months to make any kind of dent in the drought. And a new long-range forecast released Monday by the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center indicates there’s little reason to hope for more storms over the next two weeks. But it’s a welcome start.

Wheeling and Dealing in the Delta

Four Southern California water agencies are pushing ahead with plans for the strategic purchase of vast tracts of land in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Led by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the agencies intend to buy four large islands in the estuary, a sensitive ecological region that is also the hub of California’s water delivery network. The islands are Bouldin Island, Webb Tract, Holland Tract and Bacon Island.

The other three buyers are Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District in Bakersfield and Semitropic and Wheeler Ridge-Maricopa water storage districts, according to the Sacramento Bee newspaper. All are primarily agricultural irrigation providers, and they are located in the Southern San Joaquin Valley, a region with limited access to water at present.

The current owner of the islands is Delta Wetlands Properties, an affiliate of Zurich American Corp, the U.S. arm of a Swiss insurance company. The company has long sought to flood the islands, whose interiors lie below sea level, to turn them into water-storage reservoirs. The concept has been controversial for years among Delta locals, who fear that flooding the islands will make them more vulnerable to levee failure, which could in turn jeopardize adjacent islands owned by others.

“I can’t say I feel good about powerful Southern California interests controlling Delta islands,” said George Hartmann, a Stockton attorney who represents farmers on McDonald Tract, an island near the four parcels eyed by Metropolitan and the Kern agencies.

Having water exporters in control of the islands also could ease construction of the so-called California Water Fix. The $15 billion proposal by the California Department of Water Resources calls for the building of two giant tunnels underneath the estuary to divert a portion of the Sacramento River’s flow. The project requires land for environmental mitigation, tunnel boring, tunnel muck storage and disposal and construction staging, among other purposes. Friendly ownership of the islands would significantly ease the burden of hostile eminent domain proceedings to acquire land for the project.

The islands are “kind of strategically located,” Eric Averett, general manager of the Rosedale water district, told the Bee. “It might facilitate the California Water Fix just because of where it’s at. There’s a variety of interests, I think, at play.”

He said “there’s still a lot that has yet to jell” before the purchase can be completed, including financial terms.

But a lot has already jelled, apparently, because the Metropolitan Water District’s general manager intends to seek approval from his board of directors on Nov. 10 to enter into a “conditional purchase and sale agreement to acquire property from Delta Wetlands,” according to the agenda for the meeting, which will be held in Los Angeles.

The stakes are high in the deal, because it would give the four water agencies a significant new controlling interest in the water tunnel project. Presumably, they would also acquire separate water rights of their own that are attached to the islands under state law. This water, which currently remains in the Delta to grow crops on the islands, could be diverted to Southern California under the new ownership, with or without the tunnels. That would amount to a loss of water for existing ecological needs within the estuary.

Top image: A snowplow crests over Daggett Pass on Kingsbury Grade/State Route 207 near South Lake Tahoe, Calif., during the first winter storm of the season to hit the Sierra Nevada on Monday, Nov. 2, 2015. ( Sebastian Foltz, Tahoe Daily Tribune, via Associated Press)

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