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Executive Summary for May 27th

In this weekly roundup, we analyze key developments in the California drought including its impact on water quality. We also look at climate change’s effect on trees, and a high-profile case against an irrigation district.

Published on May 27, 2016 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Sierra Trees on the Move

If you want to know how climate change will impact California’s forests, a new report from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has insight into one aspect: Key tree species are on the move.

The report found that in the Northern Sierra Nevada, conifers such as mountain hemlock, red fir, western white pine and lodgepole pine are shifting to higher elevations where it is cooler. Analyzing research from the last 80 years shows some of these species moving as much as 500 feet higher.

The researchers reported that the reason for this is most likely climate change. Three of the most affected species are previously documented to be at risk from climate change at lower elevations. And as the researchers document, there have been “fewer freezing days, lower snowpack, earlier snow melt, warmer nighttime temperatures, and greater water deficit values, especially at low to middle elevations.”

This means both good and bad news. “The good news is that trees are adjusting. They aren’t just all dying in place as conditions become unsuitable,” David Wright, a senior environmental scientist with the department who helped lead the study, told the Mercury News. “The bad news is that if they have to move up at all, it shows our impacts are happening and are continuing, and that some of these trees might end up with no place to move up to.”

Drought Aids Water Quality

There aren’t a lot of upsides to California’s drought, but water quality at ocean beaches this year might be one. A new report finds that water quality has improved in some places, thanks to reduced runoff.

Health the Bay’s annual Beach Report Card, which uses bacteria counts at beaches to determine water quality, gave A or B grades to 97 percent of beaches in Southern California. “This was the fifth year in a row of below-average rainfall in Southern California, and as a result, its beaches experienced less urban runoff, which likely led to the improvement of overall grades,” the report found.

Runoff may also have been reduced thanks to statewide conservation mandates that restricted things like washing off driveways and other hardscapes, and curtailed landscape irrigation.

In the quest for cleaner beaches, we don’t have to root for drought, though. Better water stormwater management practices can reduce polluted runoff into the waterways and also provide a needed source of water.

Los Angeles imports 90 percent of its water supply, but on a daily basis, 10 million gallons of water runs off streets and into waterways and storm drains. And 20 million gallons a day of treated wastewater are piped into the Los Angeles River. Urban water expert David Sedlak called stormwater one of the best resources for improving water supply in urban areas if we’re smart about how we use it.

“We need to change this type of behavior, and better utilize this precious resource,” the report states. “Our region needs to be smarter about maximizing the water that we already have and the water that we receive from rain.”

Irrigation District Fine Dropped

A high-profile case against a Northern California irrigation district looks to be nearly settled after the State Water Resource Control Board proposed dropping a $1.4 million fine against the district.

Byron-Bethany Irrigation District, which holds senior water rights, faced the steep charge when it continued to divert water for two weeks after the Water Board ordered them to stop diversions due to drought conditions.

“We are pleased the State Water Resources Control Board finally did the right thing in dismissing the enforcement action brought against Byron-Bethany Irrigation District last July,” the district said in a statement. “This day is a long time coming. We maintained all along that we were legally exercising our pre-1914 senior water right. We are thankful the State Water Board’s Hearing Team found multiple, significant discrepancies in the case against us.”

While this case may be settled, the larger issue isn’t. The state still contends that it has the right to regulate even those with senior water rights, while agricultural interests with senior rights believe otherwise.

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