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Executive Summary for November 18th

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. 18, 2015 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Thinking to the Future: Reforms for the Next Drought

The Public Policy Institute of California released a new report today recommending several reforms to help the state deal with future water scarcity. To sum up:

  • Reform water rights: The most senior category of rights is not even subject to regular permitting. The state has no idea how much these users are taking, when or for what purpose. That needs to change.
  • Create environmental water budgets: Designate a certain amount of water for wildlife and habitat on each stream. Water users would develop procedures to meet these standards, and pay into a fund for environmental purposes when they benefit from modifications.
  • Make trades easier: Water trading has increased only marginally during the drought because the process is too complicated. Permitting should be consolidated into a single agency, and some types of trades should be pre-authorized if they won’t harm the environment.

“Implementing these reforms will require some adaptation,” Brian Gray, coauthor of the report, said in a statement. “But it won’t require a complete overhaul of the state’s water rights system either.”

Another new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists focuses on groundwater. It recommends:

  • Redirecting floodwaters in wet years to recharge groundwater. This could be done by flooding farmland, restoring wetlands and/or moving flood-control levees farther away from rivers (known as “setback” levees) to increase riparian area.
  • Adding protective “triggers” to the state’s new groundwater regulations to identify when unsustainable pumping conditions begin to harm aquifers and the environment, and then require pumping restrictions.

“When it rains, we can slow, sink and capture runoff in the ground … by redesigning stormwater capture and management systems,” the report states. “This can help reduce flooding and also prepare us for dry periods.”

More Flexibility Sought on New Conservation Rules

Water agencies in the Sacramento region are pleading with the state to give them more flexibility to meet a new round of water conservation requirements likely to be adopted next year.

The Sacramento Regional Water Authority, which represents some two dozen water utilities in and around California’s capital city, wants the State Water Resources Control Board to adopt more region-specific conservation rules. The idea is to take into account how local climate influences water demand.

“I think we’re going to see some long-term impacts on tree canopy and economic burdens on the customers that have to do something to replace landscapes,” John Woodling, the authority’s executive director, told Capital Public Radio.

“We use more water – we’re in a hotter place,” he added. “So to maintain our landscapes, especially our trees, takes more water in the Central Valley than it does some places along the coast.”

This argument could resonate, because water board officials have been urging people to water enough to protect trees, which represent a long-term investment in urban habitat that also help clean the air and ease hot temperatures.

“The 30 and 36 percent targets we got (in 2015) were pretty burdensome,” Woodling said.

The plea comes in the wake of a move by Gov. Jerry Brown last week to extend the state’s drought emergency for another year, and plans by the water board to continue mandatory water conservation rules for another year also.

Did Folsom Lake Make the World Notice?

That’s the claim made by Gizmodo in an article published late Tuesday about the California drought. It’s based on the reaction to dramatic before-and-after photos of Folsom Lake’s water level published earlier this year by a number of media organizations – including Gizmodo itself.

The pictures are indeed dramatic: In 2011, the reservoir was full after a relatively wet winter. Then by fall 2014, it had shrunk to a near-record low after a third year of drought.

What the article doesn’t say is that Folsom Reservoir is relatively small. With a capacity of 977,000 acre-feet, it’s a fraction of the size of Shasta or Oroville reservoirs, which are, in reality, much more important to statewide water supplies.

Folsom is also relatively shallow, so small declines in water level expose a vast and dramatic shoreline.

It is also, of course, in the backyard of the state capital and enveloped by its metropolitan sprawl. So Folsom gets a lot more attention than those bigger reservoirs.

In reality, the situation at Lake Shasta is probably more worrisome from a statewide perspective. Its shrinkage has caused the elimination of water deliveries to millions of acres of farmland and cut back water to wildlife refuges. It could also bring about the extinction of winter-run Chinook salmon, an endangered species, after two straight years of inadequate cold water stored in the reservoir.

Top image: In this June 3, 2013 file photo, farmer David Schwabauer, partner/manager of Leavens Ranches, inspects part of the irrigation system that serves his avocado and lemon crops in Moorpark, Calif. For years Schwabauer has watched groundwater levels retreat with higher demand from encroaching development. Two new reports recommend additional steps to manage and sustain groundwater. (Damian Dovarganes, Associated Press)

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