Executive Summary for November 19th

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. 19, 2015 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Business Booming for Water Delivery Companies

Garrett McInnis has been so busy hauling water to people with dry wells that he’s had to buy three new tanker trucks to keep up. His company, H20 to Go, primarily serves homeowners in the Sierra Nevada foothills flanking the Lake Tahoe region.

“Our phone rings constantly with people putting [storage tank] systems in and asking what they need to do,” says McInnis. “A lot of these folks have never had to deal with this. It’s all drought-related.”

Many rural homes in the area are not served by municipal water systems and rely on their own wells instead. Those wells lie in fractured rock voids that are normally refilled by snowmelt. But there’s been almost no snowmelt this year, thanks to the drought, so many people are watching their wells go dry for the first time ever.

Many people can’t afford to buy water when their wells dry up. So for this reason, McInnis hasn’t raised his prices for delivered water, even though his own costs have gone up every year.

“When you install a storage tank and start getting delivery of water, you find out how much water costs and how much you actually use,” said one customer, Jim Conragan, who lives on the outskirts of Grass Valley and had water delivered recently to his 2,600-gallon tank. “It makes a real difference.”

To Really Understand the Drought, Look at Temperatures

That’s the message from a recent presentation by Glen MacDonald, the John Muir Memorial Chair of Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, helpfully digested this week by the hard-working MavensNotebook.com.

This four-year California drought, MacDonald tells us, is not a record-breaker in terms of dryness, despite numerous reports to that effect. Where it does destroy all previous records is how warm this drought has been. This has compounded the effects of the dryness by leaving California with virtually no snowpack, normally its most important water supply.

“That’s where we do see we are beginning to go off the charts and where this is exceptional,” he said.

MacDonald’s presentation was made at the biennial State of the Estuary Conference, held in Oakland in September and sponsored by the San Francisco Estuary Partnership.

The exceptional heat boosts evaporation from the land and evapotranspiration from plants — two important measures of drought that often get overlooked.

He said the temperature spike is connected to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, but perhaps not entirely. Recent studies suggest around 25 percent of the temperature increase is influenced by climate change.

“Some of it is natural variability,” he said. “But a significant portion of this seems to be related to the increasing temperatures driven by increasing greenhouse gases.”

MacDonald goes on to discuss how population and demographic changes may hinder future land and water conservation efforts in California. We won’t go into that here, but it’s worth reading deeper if you’re curious about such things.

Merced Region Expects Big Shift from Crops to Homes

An additional 11,000 acres of urban growth is expected on lands around Merced, California, that are now farms.

That’s according to a draft long-term water plan being prepared by the Merced Irrigation District. The water resources management plan also foresees that farmlands will expand by 10,000 acres outside the district’s boundaries.

In addition, the ongoing shift towards permanent crops will continue, with more fields being shifted to orchards and vineyards.

All this means that water demand will “harden” in future decades, meaning there will be fewer farm acres that can be fallowed during a drought. Instead, water demand will remain relatively consistent from year to year and season to season, because homes, businesses and permanent crops generally require the same amount of water all the time.

On the other hand, irrigation technology is changing. Many farmers are ending flood irrigation and switching to drip systems. This could reduce total water demand on fields, or it could simply allow available water to be stretched across more fields.

The plan is expected to be completed around April 2016. One early finding is that all these changes are certain to put additional demand on the region’s groundwater, during a time when new state laws require that water be managed sustainably for the first time ever. An overall goal of the plan is to figure out how to meet future water demand with available water supplies.

In short, the trends in Merced mirror those taking place across California, especially in the farming-intensive Central Valley. Hopefully, other irrigation agencies are working on similar plans.

Top image: In this Sept. 15, 2014 photo, Yolanda Serrato, 54, and her family of five bathe with water from this tank in front of her house in East Porterville, Calif., a necessity after their well went dry. Some water delivery companies report that business is booming as a result of such hardships. (Scott Smith, Associated Press)

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