Executive Summary for January 26th

The numbers are in, tallying the massive costs resulting from two wildfires last year that were among the worst in California’s history. Plus, Pacifica declares a state of emergency after El Niño-fueled storms, and a public comment period begins for rules governing injection wells for oil and gas.

Published on Jan. 26, 2016 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Costs Mounting for California Wildfires

Another cost of California’s prolonged drought was made official yesterday. The state is finally done tallying some of the economic fallout from two fires last year that were among the worst in California’s history.

California Department of Insurance yesterday reported that the Valley Fire, which stretched through Lake, Napa and Sonoma counties, destroyed nearly 2,000 structures and cost $700 million in insured losses. The Butte Fire, which raced through Amador and Calaveras counties, destroyed 818 structures and cost $300 million in insured losses.

That brings the total for the two fires to $1 billion and that’s just insured losses. “The $1 billion does not include uninsured losses nor does it include damage to public roads and utilities,” the Associated Press reports. “For that, global insurance company Aon Benfield estimated last year that the two fires did nearly $2 billion in economic damage, including business interruption.”

By way of comparison, the Valley Fire was the third most damaging and ranked fifth in terms of costs from insured losses. The Butte Fire was the seventh worst in damages in state history. The two fires also resulted in six deaths.

The most damaging wildfire (tallied by the number of structures burned) in state history was the Tunnel Fire in the Oakland Hills in October 1991, in which 2,900 structures were destroyed and 25 people killed, although it was small in size at 1,600 acres. Second is the 2003 Cedar Fire in San Diego that claimed 15 lives, 273,246 acres and 2,820 structures.

The U.S. Forest Service reported that last year was the most expensive fire season in history, with $7.1 billion spent combating fires that consumed almost 10 million acres.

“A year-round fire season is California’s new reality,” said insurance commissioner Dave Jones. “Residents and communities, especially those in high-risk fire areas, must take precautions now before the next devastating wildfire strikes.”

El Niño Brings Damage in Pacifica

For most Californians, El Niño storms bringing rain and snow have been a welcome relief after more than four years of enduring drought. But for Pacifica, just south of San Francisco, storms battering the coastline are causing serious problems.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that a state of emergency was declared in Pacifica on Friday because of high rates of erosion along cliffs, threatening properties.

“Those ledges had remained relatively intact during California’s four-year drought until this month, when unceasing El Niño-driven storms began to sweep through,” the Chronicle reported. In some areas, homes and patios hang over the water’s edge, with the hillsides below eroded.

Pacifica is not the only coastal town having problems this winter, either. Several San Diego-area beaches have experienced high rates of erosion and collapsing sea-side cliffs thanks to El Niño storms.

“Cliff erosion is part of the natural cycle that replenishes beach sand,” KPBS reports. “But huge sea walls erected by property owners to protect their bluff-top homes are partly why beach sand that gets washed away in winter storms is not being replaced.”

Public Comment Period Begins on Rules for Underground Injection Wells

If you want to weigh in about how oil and gas production could impact California’s water, now’s the time. Last week the state’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) began a public comment period for proposed rules that would govern part of its underground injection well program.

There’s a lot water involved in oil and gas production in California – some of it is injected underground as hot water or steam to aid production and some of it is already underground but is brought to the surface during production. In 2014 the state reported that 205.3 million barrels of oil were produced and along with that, 3.3 billion barrels of water.

This “produced water” that comes to the surface is often brackish, sometimes contaminated and needs to be disposed of or treated. One of the most common practices is to re-inject the water back underground either to help aid recovery of more oil or gas or to prevent subsidence.

DOGGR reports that its new draft rules “are intended to address shortcomings in the state’s underground injection control program identified by the U.S. EPA and also to modernize and improve the rules that protect public health and safety and the environment.”

Last summer it was revealed that for years oil companies were re-injecting this wastewater into aquifers that were intended for irrigation and drinking, causing concern that aquifers containing clean drinking water could be polluted.

The Center for Biological Diversity released a list of “loopholes and weaknesses” in the draft regulations.

“The state’s new rules actually weaken existing law aimed at protecting California’s precious water supplies from oil industry contamination,” said Clare Lakewood, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “California oil officials have dragged their heels for years in proposing new regulations to correct their blatant violations of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. Now they’ve released rules that don’t fix these dangerous deficiencies and in some ways actually increase the threat oil company injections pose to our underground drinking water.”

Top image: In this Sept. 15, 2015, file photo, Richard and Kathie Reeves embrace as they stand in the remains of the home of close friends that was destroyed in a wildfire several days earlier in Middletown, Calif. (Elaine Thompson, Associated Press)

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