Executive Summary for December 11th

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. 11, 2015 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Wettest Start to an El Niño Year

After all the hype about how the El Niño weather phenomenon is going to save California from drought, we’re starting to receive some hard data. And it’s promising.

On Thursday, climate scientist Daniel Swain said this has been the wettest start to an El Niño winter in history in the Pacific Northwest. That includes Portland and Seattle. While his comment doesn’t apply to California, it’s still promising because the typical storm track brings the storms sweeping across the Northwest before reaching California.

And in an update posted Thursday, the National Weather Service stated this El Niño already ranks as the third-strongest ever recorded (since recording began in 1950) and may end up as the strongest.

“The main impacts season is December–March,” Emily Becker wrote for the weather service, “so we’re just at the very beginning of finding out what this El Niño event will bring to the U.S.

And this week, some significant storms are reaching California. Parts of the Central Sierra Nevada received more than 2in (5cm) of precipitation on Thursday. That was expected to produce 1–2ft (30–60cm) of new snow in the Lake Tahoe area.

“It’s full-on winter out here,” Jerry Bindel, general manager of Aston Lakeland Village vacation condominiums in South Lake Tahoe, told the Associated Press. “This is great news all the way around.”

Another wet storm is expected Sunday, with snow levels reaching as low as 1,500ft (450m). Weather officials are predicting up to 15in (38cm) of snow at the 5,000ft (1,500m) level, and up to 2ft (60cm) at higher elevations.

That’s what it takes to end the drought. Only a lot more of it.

These initial storms have been surprisingly deadly. Two people died in storm-related incidents in the Portland area on Wednesday. On Thursday, four people died in California when a helicopter ambulance crashed in the San Joaquin Valley amid heavy rain and fog. And a man died Thursday in Sacramento when his pickup truck was crushed by a semitruck that went out of control on a rainy freeway.

It’s all a sobering reminder that, after four years of drought, many of us may not remember what a real winter means. It means slowing down. Being more patient. Enjoying the soothing patter of rain, however long it lasts.

Illegal Pot Farms Still Sucking up Vital Water

Marijuana growing, while legal under some conditions, is difficult to track in California and even more difficult to monitor for its environmental impact. This is hitting home as the drought continues.

On Thursday, officials from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration estimated that illegal marijuana grows have consumed 72 million gallons (273 million litres) of water in San Diego County, enough to serve 440 families for a year.

“What most people don’t realize is how much water is used to grow a marijuana plant and that most of that water is stolen,” said Gary Hill, DEA assistant special agent in charge, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Hill said it takes about 900 gallons (3,500 litres) of water to grow an outdoor marijuana plant to harvest, and about half that for an indoor plant.

Most of the 98 indoor and outdoor pot operations that were shut down by the county’s Narcotics Task Force and its partners used stolen water or water sucked from natural sources.

One 13,000-plant farm, nestled in the foliage of Palomar Mountain, sucked a nearby natural spring dry, Hill said. He said another operation illegally siphoned water from a Valley Center Municipal Water District hydrant.

This problem has been covered extensively in the media this year. And state water officials have launched a new approach to deal with the problem by requiring marijuana growers to register their operations and meet certain environmental standards.

Of course, that only works if you intend to operate a legal marijuana farm. The illegal farms, like those highlighted by Agent Hill, are notoriously difficult to control, partly because California lacks sufficient water regulators and environmental police in the field.

State lawmakers need to step up and pass legislation to address the problem directly. That will mean putting more people in the field, which will cost money. It’s overdue.

Top image: Skiers make their way down a run at the Northstar California Resort Thursday, Dec. 10, 2015, in Truckee, Calif. It’s shaping up as the biggest snowstorm to hit the central Sierra in two years. The National Weather Service expects 2–3ft (60–90cm) of snow will fall on the highest peaks overlooking Lake Tahoe. Another storm is expected Sunday. (Northstar California Resort via AP)

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