Executive Summary for December 2nd

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 Dec. 2, 2015 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

October Water Conservation Slips

As expected, water conservation across California fell behind in October. Californians reduced their water consumption by 22 percent during the month, compared to 2013, falling behind the 25 percent goal set by Gov. Jerry Brown.

The slacking in conservation was expected, since there is less “fat” in the state’s water consumption during cooler months, so reductions are harder to get.

“Keeping the 25 percent savings is going to get harder,” said Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board. “When I saw the 22 percent, I was relieved … It could have been a lot worse.”

In its official communications, the water board sought to put a positive spin on the news, saying conservation overall since June is at 27 percent – still on track to meet the governor’s goal of 25 percent overall savings through February 2016.

But in reality, one more month like October will drag the average under 25 percent, and there are three more winter months that will weigh on the average.

In related news, the state Department of Water Resources (DWR) on Tuesday announced its initial water allocation for those agencies that buy water from the State Water Project. Again, as expected, it is dismal: In 2016, they can expect just 10 percent of the total water supplies allowed by their contracts.

The 10 percent number is a reflection of the amount of water stored in reservoirs today, and initial impressions of mountain snowpack. Both are very low. So 10 percent is, if anything, a good number.

However, many years past have seen much larger allocations at this time of year. So 10 percent reflects a certain skepticism about the state’s ability to deliver even average water supplies.

For state officials, this initial allocation announcement is as much about managing expectations as it is about delivering water. It’s much too early in the season to have any real idea about how much water will be available in 2016. There can’t be any hard information about that until the end of January, normally the wettest month of the year in California.

The four-year drought has created such a deep hole in water supplies that it’s possible the 10 percent allocation won’t improve much, even with average precipitation this winter. Below-average conditions could even shrink that number.

“No matter how hard it’s raining, we need to remember to use water wisely and sparingly,” DWR director Mark Cowin said in a statement. “Our historic drought has lasted for years and isn’t going to quickly be washed away.”

The State Water Project is a massive system of reservoirs and canals that delivers mountain snowmelt from Northern California to the Bay Area and Southern California. Its customers are primarily urban water agencies, including the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Kern County Water Agency and several water districts in Silicon Valley.

On the positive side, a solid winter storm is expected to sweep across Northern California on Thursday, bringing as much as a foot of snow to higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada.

How Many Swimming Pools in L.A.?

Los Angeles has long been a target of ridicule for its lavish ways with water, best exemplified by its many residential swimming pools, all filled with water imported from elsewhere at great expense.

The criticism is somewhat misplaced, since the greater Los Angeles region is one of the best in the state at water conservation. And, in reality, lawns consume more water than swimming pools, and lavish lawns exist all over California.

Yet the stereotype holds on, as does the question: How many pools are there?

A fascinating answer comes from Schwanksta.com, a website run by Ken Schwencke, a journalist and web developer who works for the New York Times. Schwencke mined data from the Los Angeles County Assessor’s Office to learn how many properties have swimming pools. He loaded that data into GIS software and paired it with aerial photographs. Then Schwencke built a map of the L.A. region, which, in his own worlds, “lets you roam from pool to pool” across the metropolis, allowing users to literally browse backyard swimming pools from the air.

The results are mesmerizing. He found there are just over 250,000 pools in the county, mostly at single-family homes, of course. By comparing his data with property values and median income he also found, not surprisingly, that wealthier neighborhoods are more likely to have swimming pools.

In the wealthy L.A. neighborhood of Bel Air, for instance, two out of three homes have swimming pools. The median income in Bel Air is $208,000 per year. The neighborhood has also been identified as one of the biggest water wasters in the state.

While 250,000 pools sounds like a big number, it doesn’t add up to a huge amount of water. If the average swimming pool holds 14,000 gallons, the total computes to around 10,700 acre-feet of water. That is only 1 percent of the volume of Folsom Lake, a reservoir in the Sacramento region that has received much media attention this year for its drought-shrunken condition.

Of course, many of the Los Angeles pools are anything but average, and Schwanksta’s choice aerial imagery gives us a sampling of these lavish bathing ponds. One unidentified mansion owner, for instance, isn’t content with just one enormous pool. There’s also a separate “natural” pond and a hot tub.

Top image: In this Friday, Nov. 13, 2015 photo, Antonio Duran paints an irrigation canal watergate next to farmland sitting fallow in Blythe, Calif. The state’s urban water conservation slipped in October, but officials hope Californians will continue to save water to meet a 25 percent conservation target by February 2016. (Jae C. Hong, Associated Press)

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