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Executive Summary for August 25th

In this weekly roundup, we analyze key water developments around the West, including a proposed clean-water tax in California, and new uncertainties surrounding a proposed Colorado River pipeline in Utah. We also look at ongoing tree mortality in the wake of the California drought.

Published on Aug. 25, 2017 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

New Tax Would Fund Clean Water in California

A bill in the California Legislature would impose a tax on every water customer in the state to fund clean water programs.

The tax, amounting to 95 cents per month for both commercial and residential water users, would generate $2 billion over 15 years. It is supported by an unusual alliance of both environmental groups and farmers. The bill, SB 623, was introduced by Sen. Bill Monning, D-Monterey, and has bipartisan support.

“This is very, very important to my constituents,” Sen. Andy Vidak of Hanford told the San Jose Mercury News. Vidak is a San Joaquin Valley cherry farmer and a Republican who is co-sponsoring the bill.

The bill is opposed by the California Association of Water Agencies, however, who fear that taxing drinking water sets a dangerous precedent. They’d rather see state general fund monies used to clean up contaminated drinking water. Other critics say it’s unfair to tax every water user to clean up contamination for which they are not to blame.

But many of the state’s water contamination problems can be traced back to farming, a water use that benefits every Californian each time they visit the grocery store.

Utah Doesn’t Know What Colorado River Pipeline Will Cost

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has told the state of Utah it needs more financial information before it can review the state’s proposal to build a 140-mile pipeline to transport Colorado River water to St. George and other cities in the southwest corner of the state. In particular, FERC wants to know how much the project will boost individual water bills.

The state, despite working on the proposal for several years, does not have the answers. The pipeline is estimated to cost $1.4 billion, but the state doesn’t have a financing plan for the project and doesn’t know how it will affect ratepayers in Washington and Kane counties, intended as the primary beneficiaries of the pipeline.

FERC also asked for additional water use data and for more details about cultural resources along the proposed route of the pipeline. It gave the state 60 days to provide the additional information.

The move could be seen as an important barometer of priorities at FERC, recently remade with a new roster of commissioners under the Trump administration.

“We’re pleased to see they’re at least asking the right questions,” Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, told the Salt Lake Tribune.

Joel Williams, assistant director of the development branch of the Utah Division of Water Resources, said the state will submit additional financial information to FERC. But he said the state does not have all the specifics the feds requested, such as how much the pipeline will cost ratepayers, and is not likely to have estimates in two months.

California Drought Is Over, but Not the Forest Apocalypse

A wet winter may have officially ended California’s five-year drought, but millions of trees are still dying throughout the state’s forests.

National Public Radio reports that nobody knows how long the trees will continue dying. The drought was a 500-year event. Human records don’t include data on how long it takes trees to recover from such a drought – or if they will at all.

“Even after this very wet winter, we’re still seeing trees dying at abnormally high rates in the forests where we’re looking,” said Adrian Das, a forest ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

The U.S. Forest Service announced in November 2016 that more than 102 million trees had been killed by the drought, based on aerial surveys. That number is expected to grow: Many trees may have been tipping toward death at the time of the survey, but not enough to offer visual cues. There will be ripple effects for years to come, including habitat changes and increased fire risk.

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