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Executive Summary for September 1st

In this weekly roundup, we analyze key water developments around the West, including an outdated drainage system that worsened Houston’s flood, a wave of salmon shortages, and a probe blaming the U.S. govt. for diverting $32 million from wildlife to Klamath water users.

Published on Sep. 1, 2017 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Houston Drainage Grid ‘So Obsolete It’s Just Unbelievable’

The massive flooding in Houston this week provided a tragic lesson in what happens when natural drainage systems can’t cope with overdevelopment.

The metro area – the fifth largest in the United States – has 2,500 miles of drainage canals and bayous that haven’t been substantially improved or enlarged since the 1930s.

Meanwhile, massive population growth and development – together with climate change that has intensified rainfall – have massively increased runoff into the dated drainage system.

The entire system, according to the Associated Press, is designed to clear out only 12–13in of rain per 24-hour period, said Jim Blackburn, an environmental law professor at Rice University. “That’s so obsolete it’s just unbelievable,” he said.

Some of the bayous can only handle 10-year storms, he said. Harris County didn’t leave enough right-of-way space when developers rushed in to expand its bayous, and widening projects have been slow and inadequate.

Houston built two emergency reservoirs, Addicks and Barker, that are activated only in heavy rain. Both overflowed: Officials were forced to release water pressing against the 70-year-old dams and backing up into wealthy subdivisions. Those releases worsened the extreme flooding downstream in Houston.

Another reservoir had been planned for Houston’s western prairies, but development killed that. Those prairies can absorb as much as 11in of rain per hour. But Blackburn said elected officials allowed subdivisions to expand into them, hardening the natural drainage surface with concrete.

“In general, developers run this city and whatever developers want they get,” said Ed Browne, chairman of the nonprofit Residents Against Flooding. His group sued Houston last year in the federal court, demanding more holding ponds and better drainage.

Drought Hangover: Chinook Salmon Scarce Across Pacific Coast

The drought may be over across most of the West, but its ripple effects aren’t. One of the biggest is a growing shortage of Chinook salmon in every Pacific state from Alaska to California.

On the Klamath River in California, the Yurok Tribe enacted its own fishing restrictions and had to import sockeye salmon from Alaska to hold its annual salmon festival. The state of California also restricted its commercial salmon fishery, as did Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. In early August, Alaska canceled commercial and recreational fishing for Chinook salmon for the rest of the season.

These ripple effects are likely to continue for several more years, because salmon breed on a three- to four-year cycle. So the downturn in salmon numbers we’re seeing now are a result of unsuccessful breeding caused by the drought three years ago. Fish returning to spawn in rivers this year will find better conditions, but that boost in productivity won’t be seen for three more years.

Problems have been compounded by poor ocean conditions caused by “The Blob,” a massive cell of high pressure that parked over a huge area of the coast for two solid years. This boosted water temperatures, causing algae blooms and disrupting the ocean food chain.

“This was warm and basically sterile water,” Laurie Weitkamp, a fisheries biologist and salmon expert at NOAA, told High Country News. “The whole prey base got screwed up.”

As a result, getting salmon for dinner is going to cost a premium – if you can find it. A salmon entree now runs $30 and up at most restaurants, and fillets are $30 a pound in stores.

Reclamation Misspent $32 Million Meant for Wildlife in Oregon and California

A new report by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel confirms that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation improperly diverted money meant for wildlife at the embattled Klamath Basin, which straddles the Oregon-California border.

Instead, the money went to a private group of farm irrigators who mostly used it for their own purposes.

“The true purpose of the agreement was to benefit private irrigators, not fish and wildlife,” the report states, according to McClatchy Newspapers.

Two federal employees reported the problem during President Barack Obama’s term. But his secretary of the interior, Sally Jewell, sided with Reclamation and refused to take any action.

The money went to the Klamath Water and Power Agency (KWAPA), an organization created by California and Oregon irrigation districts, to manage a water bank. The water was supposed to flow to Klamath wildlife refuges, but either did not arrive or arrived only late in the season, after irrigators’ needs were met.

The investigation found that KWAPA spent $32 million improperly, with $28 million compensating farmers for using groundwater instead of federal irrigation supplies. The remaining $4 million went on salaries, rent, travel and other “questionable” expenses.

The results of the investigation were delivered to President Donald Trump on August 8. No action has yet been taken.

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