Half of US Is In Drought

Half of the United States is experiencing drought, according to the latest numbers from the U.S. National Drought Monitor.

The drought is deepest in California and the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, according to the latest drought map, released May 8. Most of California is in extreme or exceptional drought, and triple-digit heat was returning to Texas and Oklahoma, according to Mark Svoboda of the National Drought Mitigation Center, who penned a report on recent drought conditions. “This is not the recipe for recovery as the calendar pushes toward summer,” Svoboda wrote of the heat in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles. “What winter wheat wasn’t damaged or killed off by recent hard freezes was left to bear the brunt of the heat and dryness this week, with little in the way of relief on the horizon.” The U.S. drought is concentrated in the Plains states and in the West, though Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Appalachians stretching from West Virginia into eastern Tennessee are all experiencing abnormal dryness. California has been in a state of drought for three years, and officials declared a state of emergency over the extreme lack of water in January. The final snow survey of the year, released May 1, revealed that the state’s snowpack is at only 18 percent of average for that date. The northern Sierra Nevadas were particularly hard hit, with only 7 percent of water content in the snowpack compared with the average. This Thursday, March 13, 2014 file photo shows cracks in the dry bed of the Stevens Creek Reservoir … Even worse, a survey from April 1, when snowpack moisture is at its peak, found only 32 percent of the water content compared with historical averages, according to California’s Department of Water Resources. As of April 25, the entire state of California was in some level of drought for the first time in the Drought Monitor’s 15-year history. Meanwhile, the state’s reservoirs are only at about half capacity, the Department of Water Resources warned, and the rainy season is largely over. New normal? Western droughts are part of the normal up-and-down of the landscape, but climate researchers warn that a parched West is likely to become more common as the globe warms. High temperatures make typical droughts worse, climate scientists say, and droughts have become more intense and longer in tropical and subtropical areas of the globe in the past 40 years. These changes threaten water supplies out West. They could also bring other nasty side effects, such as worsening wildfires. Western wildfires have become larger and more frequent in the last three decades, according to a study published online April 4 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. “Most of these trends show strong correlations with drought-related conditions, which, to a large degree, agree with what we expect from climate change projections,” Max Moritz, a study co-author and fire specialist at the University of California-Berkeley Cooperative Extension, told Live Science at the time.

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Ongoing drought The U.S. drought is concentrated in the Plains states and in the West, though Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Appalachians stretching from West Virginia into eastern Tennessee are all experiencing abnormal dryness. California has been in a state of drought for three years, and officials declared a state of emergency over the extreme lack of water in January. The final snow survey of the year, released May 1, revealed that the state’s snowpack is at only 18 percent of average for that date. The northern Sierra Nevadas were particularly hard hit, with only 7 percent of water content in the snowpack compared with the average.

Even worse, a survey from April 1, when snowpack moisture is at its peak, found only 32 percent of the water content compared with historical averages, according to California’s Department of Water Resources. As of April 25, the entire state of California was in some level of drought for the first time in the Drought Monitor’s 15-year history. Meanwhile, the state’s reservoirs are only at about half capacity, the Department of Water Resources warned, and the rainy season is largely over. New normal? Western droughts are part of the normal up-and-down of the landscape, but climate researchers warn that a parched West is likely to become more common as the globe warms. High temperatures make typical droughts worse, climate scientists say, and droughts have become more intense and longer in tropical and subtropical areas of the globe in the past 40 years. These changes threaten water supplies out West. They could also bring other nasty side effects, such as worsening wildfires. Western wildfires have become larger and more frequent in the last three decades, according to a study published online April 4 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. “Most of these trends show strong correlations with drought-related conditions, which, to a large degree, agree with what we expect from climate change projections,” Max Moritz, a study co-author and fire specialist at the University of California-Berkeley Cooperative Extension, told Live Science at the time.

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Grand Canyon runs low on water

Grand-Canyon-Runs-Dry-Drought

In this April 11, 2014 photo, low reservoir levels reveal tree stumps and a cracked lake bed in Williams, Ariz. Officials in Williams have declared a water crisis amid a drought that is quickly drying up nearby reservoirs and forcing the community to pump its only two wells to capacity.

In the northern Arizona city of Williams, restaurant patrons don’t automatically get a glass of water anymore. Residents caught watering lawns or washing cars with potable water can be fined. Businesses are hauling water from outside town to fill swimming pools, and building permits have been put on hold because there isn’t enough water to accommodate development.

Officials in the community about 60 miles from the Grand Canyon’s South Rim have clamped down on water use and declared a crisis amid a drought that is quickly drying up nearby reservoirs and forcing the city to pump its only two wells to capacity.

The situation offers a glimpse at how cities across the West are coping with a drought that has left them thirsting for water. More than a dozen rural towns in California recently emerged from emergency water restrictions that had a sheriff’s office on the lookout for water bandits at a local lake. One New Mexico town relied on bottled water for days last year. In southern Nevada, water customers are paid to remove lawns and cannot install any new grass in their front yards.

Officials in Williams jumped straight to the most severe restrictions after receiving only about 6 inches of precipitation from October to April — about half of normal levels — and a bleak forecast that doesn’t include much rain. City leaders acknowledge the move is extreme but say it’s the only way to make the city has enough water to survive.

“We knew we had to take some action to preserve the water,” Mayor John Moore said.

Reservoirs that supply residents’ taps are so low that they reveal tree stumps, plants and cracked earth once submerged by water.

Businesses are feeling the effects, too. The Grand Canyon Railway, which shuttles tourists from Williams to the national park, is using water recycled from rainfall, drained from a hotel pool and wastewater purchased in nearby Flagstaff to irrigate its landscaping and run steam engines.

Residents are praying they get some relief soon.

“I still have hope God will send us the rain,” said resident Jan Bardwell.

Communities across New Mexico also have seen their drinking water supplies dwindle in recent years due to severe drought and aging infrastructure. The town of Magdalena last summer was forced last summer to turn to bottled water after its well failed.

In the far western Texas city of El Paso, residents can’t water outdoors on Mondays. And officials have been reusing treated wastewater and investing in a major desalination plant that turns salty, unusable groundwater into a drinking source for the border city.

As Williams waits for moisture, Moore said city officials are exploring whether new wells will help secure a more sustainable water source. He said water conservation should take residents through the next couple of months until the rainy season arrives and winter returns.

In his home, Moore is taking shorter showers, flushing the toilet less often and thinking twice about dumping out water he doesn’t drink.

Other residents are using buckets to collect cold water that normally would go to waste while they wait for a hot shower, he said. Automatic shut-off devices are planned for showers at the city pool, and signs at water filling stations declare them off-limits to commercial water haulers.

Excessive water consumption could be costly under the restrictions. Residents using more than 15,000 gallons of water per month will see their bills rise by 150 percent to 200 percent. The penalty for using potable water outdoors for anything but public health or emergencies comes with a $100 surcharge that doubles for subsequent violations.

The Grand Canyon Railway poured tens of thousands of dollars into a landscape remodel last year that was watered with city taps. This year, the company had to gather that water from other sources, bringing in three rails cars to store it onsite.

It was a scenario that general manager Bob Baker didn’t see coming. “It’s drastic,” he said.

Other northern Arizona towns have less-stringent water restrictions. In Payson, residents are on a schedule for outdoor watering or washing cars. They are prohibited from putting in new grass and must choose from drought-tolerant plants for landscaping.

The goal for each person is to use no more than 89 gallons of water per day, but residents have averaged better than that at 70 to 75 gallons daily over the past decade, Mayor Kenny Evans said.

Water rates that increased decades ago allow the town to offer rebates for low-flow toilets and other water-saving devices. Payson has positioned itself well enough to extend water services to nearby communities while preaching conservation.

“We don’t have enough water to waste it,” said Evans, president of the Northern Arizona Municipal Water Users Association.

In Williams, Moore recently looked out at the reservoirs surrounding town in anticipation of a monsoon season that could help replenish them.

“We know in due time, the lakes will fill back up, the snow will come,” he said.

Little help for a million Californians on wells in historic drought

FORT BRAGG, California (Reuters) – Michael Holmes got by at his rural home near California’s rugged northern coast on a disability pension and water from a decades-old well — until the well dried up.

Holmes, 65, is among an estimated million Californians who rely on private wells, many now threatened by the state’s historic dry spell and with no direct access to a multi-million dollar state drought relief program.

“When this place was built in the 1950s, the water was three feet below the ground,” Holmes said, pointing a flashlight down the well’s long, empty shaft. “Now, the pump is down 26 feet and we’re still running out.”

These days, Holmes buys drinking water by the gallon and waits until enough water gathers to take a shower once a week.

The pump hangs an inch off the ground at the bottom of his well, and when the water comes up, it’s full of muck and minerals.

“It turns my white hair yellow,” Holmes said, tilting his head down to show.

California is still counting the number of threatened wells, in the latest sign of how the state is struggling to address and even understand the extent of the worst drought in decades.

A state report released last week showed groundwater levels in California had dropped over the past three, dry years, but focused mostly on issues faced by municipal water systems and agriculture, not well-dependent homeowners.

Governor Jerry Brown declared an emergency in January in the most populous U.S. state, requesting voluntary conservation efforts, funneling millions of dollars to farmers and municipalities, and even providing funds to help farm workers idled by the drought buy food and pay rent.

In a state where the lack of water for irrigation threatens a half-million acres of farmland, and a rapidly shrinking snow pack means less drinking water for nearly 40 million people, help was rushed to those who live within the boundaries of even the smallest municipal water districts.

Even fish got help. As river waters receded, the state trucked 30 million hatchling salmon, a record, to ease their annual migration.

The $687 million drought relief package of grants, loans and other financial assistance programs to fund solutions such as water storage and recycling projects, anti-contamination efforts and emergency water supplies, was aimed at communities in need.

But the relief plan did not include funds targeted at helping those relying on private wells to dig deeper or make other improvements.

They are not considered part of the public delivery system, and finding relief for them is more complicated, said Debbie Davis, the governor’s drought liaison to counties.

Oversight of water systems in California is limited and fractured.

Counties are responsible for oversight of private wells, she added, and it wasn’t until homeowners started calling a drought hotline in Mendocino County seeking help that state officials realized there was an extensive problem.

“For the most part, domestic well users are expected to be responsible for their own resource,” said Davis, who estimated a million people depended on wells. A working group is tracking down well owners and assessing needs, said California Natural Resources Agency spokesman Richard Stapler.

About 10 miles south of Holmes’s home in Ft. Bragg, many wells are going dry in the tiny beachside village of Mendocino, whose 900 residents rely entirely on private wells, said Roger Schwartz, president of the village’s tiny water district.

One woman in Mendocino County called the drought hotline to say she needed water to bathe her disabled husband, who was incontinent, said Brandon Merritt, a county analyst. Another family said it could not afford the $350 a private dealer was charging for a month-long supply of water.

Schwartz, of the Mendocino Community Services District, has pushed the state to offer grants or loans to help residents purchase water or dig deeper wells.

But Davis said the state will focus first on helping those who can be hooked up to existing water systems.

Such efforts would likely not help Arthur “Mark” Fontaine and his wife Ellen. They estimate it would cost $20,000 to improve the well that serves their property, which lies four miles from the nearest town and is likely too far away to be hooked up to municipal water.

Since October, they have been buying water from a broker.

“We’ve always had to conserve here,” said Ellen Fontaine, who grew up on the property, about 24 miles from Willits. “But I have not been able to do laundry here for almost two months.”

California governor issues second drought emergency proclamation

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – California’s drought is so severe that the state will roll back some environmental protections and loosen the rules on transferring water to farmers, Governor Jerry Brown said on Friday.

Issuing his second emergency proclamation on the drought in just three month, Brown said the state would redouble its efforts to conserve and distribute water fairly, and called on residents to avoid washing their cars, watering their lawns and even accepting glasses of water in restaurants if they are not thirsty.

“The dry season is upon us,” Brown declared at a meeting on environmental sustainability in Los Angeles. “With this proclamation I’m calling upon all Californians, municipal water agencies, and anyone who uses water to do everything possible to conserve.”

Brown, who served two terms as governor from 1975 to 1983, during the state’s last severe drought, said an executive order issued on Friday would shorten the application process for farmers who need water for their crops, and cut red tape for cities that need to improve or expand their water systems.

It forbids homeowner associations from fining residents who let their lawns go dry.

At the meeting, sponsored by the Los Angeles Business Council and held at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, Brown warned of the impending summer wildfire season, when rain is extremely rare and blazes race through the state’s dry, brushy canyons, threatening homes and causing millions of dollars’ worth of damage.

He exempted the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and other emergency responders from competitive bidding rules when purchasing equipment needed to fight fires or reduce its risk.

Brown linked the drought to global climate change, saying that unless people reduce their dependence on fossil fuels, conditions will continue to worsen.

“The only way out over the long term is to substitute the fossil fuel with solar, with wind,” Brown said. “We are playing Russian roulette with our environment.”

In California drought, big money, many actors, little oversight

In the middle of one of the worst droughts in California’s history, no one knows exactly how many agencies supply the state with water.

While state regulators supervise three companies that provide gas and electricity for most of California, drinking water is delivered through a vast network of agencies which collectively do billions of dollars of business, setting rates and handing out contracts with scant oversight.

There are so many agencies, in fact, that the California Department of Water Resource, which is responsible for managing and protecting the state’s water, concedes that it does not even know the exact number.

“We think the total number is about 3,000 but there is no definitive resting place for those numbers,” a department spokesman said.

Some state officials and water experts are calling for change, arguing that the process of providing water should be as clear as the product, especially in the middle of a drought. As one of the nation’s agricultural leaders and a trendsetter in environmental regulation, California’s actions could be felt beyond its borders.

Wes Strickland, an attorney who specializes in water law, says most of these water agencies do a good job. Cities and towns like controlling their own resources, and most of the agencies are elected, assuring a level of accountability.

But, Strickland says, good and bad, most operate “under the radar”, with little public scrutiny. “These agencies are at the forefront of the drought response,” he added.

John Chiang, the California state controller, is pushing for legislation that will increase fines for public water entities that fail to file annual reports with his office, although no agency is responsible for reading the reports once filed.

“The lack of transparency provides a breeding ground for unchecked spending, corruption, and fiscal mismanagement,” said Chiang, who in October warned nine cities and 117 special districts, some of which were public entities solely responsible for managing and supplying water, that they were delinquent in filing financial records.

Just 138 utilities – those owned by investors – are regulated by an outside body, the California Public Utilities Commission, Strickland says. The rest are governed by small boards of locally-elected officials.

The former general manager and other unidentified current and former officials at one major water system, southern California’s Central Basin Municipal Water District, are accused in a recent whistleblower lawsuit of using a secret $2.7 million fund for groundwater storage as a “slush fund” that funneled cash to political allies, board members and relatives.

The lawsuit was filed last month by district board member Leticia Vasquez. Under the whistleblower statute she would stand to gain financially if the lawsuit succeeds. The agency’s own lawyers, in a report issued at the end of March after a nine-month investigation, said the water district violated California’s open-meeting laws when it created the fund out of the public eye.

The former general manager has not yet filed a legal response to the allegations. Efforts to contact him were unsuccessful. The water district said if the case proceeds, it intends to fully cooperate.

Records relating to the fund were among those subpoenaed by federal officials last year as part of a wider and ongoing FBI investigation into the financial activities of the water district, which sells imported water to water districts in Los Angeles county.

Three subpoenas  requested financial records, documents and personnel records from the water district.

The FBI and the water district declined to comment or confirm an investigation.

California’s drought, which is on track to be the third worst since records began in the early 20th century, according to state officials, threatens to have devastating effects in the state and beyond.

Farmers are considering idling a half million acres of cropland, a loss of production that could cause billions of dollars in economic damage, and several small communities are at risk of running out of drinking water.

The state also recorded its driest winter to date by March. The state’s snowpack, which provides water in the spring melt, is at a record low.

From the water wars in the movie “Chinatown” to the quote attributed to Mark Twain, “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting,” water in the West has a long history of strife.

As California was settled, small communities would establish their own water wells. Economic and political power often stemmed from water rights and no single entity has ever been put in charge of the system, Strickland says.

Some of these agencies are scrambling to get new sources of water, which could require wells, water imports and plants to treat tainted water.

THE COST OF WATER

Water is expensive. For instance, 885 “special districts”, which provide drinking water for 11 million Californians had operating expenses of $7.3 billion for fiscal year ending 2012. Their long-term bond debt amounted to $20 billion, according to the controller’s office.

The state is planning an $8 billion water bond and Democratic assemblyman Anthony Rendon, a sponsor, wants to put provisions for stricter oversight of how bond money is spent.

“Past water bonds have gone to so many different places for so many things it is hard to keep track of the money. We don’t really have a place where we can find out that information,” Rendon said. “There is very little oversight over the management of one of our most sacred and vital resources.”

State data shows that salaries to water district employees vary widely and that some small agencies are paying big-city wages.

The state controller’s website, where the latest available records date to 2011, shows the average salary to employees in 45 top-paying water special districts listed by wage totals is over $70,000, and over $100,000 in two districts.

The chief executive of the Dublin San Ramon Service District in northern California, which serves 157,000 people, will receive wage and benefits of nearly $338,000 for 2014, according to a water district official.

That compares with $345,000 paid to the general manager of the Department of Water and Power (DWP) in Los Angeles – America’s second largest city with a population of 3.8 million.

Sue Stephenson, a spokeswoman for the Dublin San Ramon district, defended the high salaries, stating that the San Francisco Bay area had a high cost of living. She also said managing a water district is an extremely responsible job, as clean water has to be on tap for users every minute of every day.

Most of the agencies are run by elected boards that have to file basic revenue and spending documents, and wage and benefit totals, to California’s state controller. But they do not file full budgets and their contracts are not subject to review or singled out in filings.

“Nobody pays any attention to these districts. So nobody knows what is going on,” said Robert Stern, an open government advocate and an author of California’s Political Reform Act, a post-Watergate era law designed to make government more financially transparent.

In the Seeley County Water District, which serves just under 400 homes in the desert near the border with Mexico, General Manager David Dale resigned in March 2008.

The following month his company Dynamic Consulting Engineers received no-bid contracts from the water district’s board worth over $200,000, followed by another contract worth over $200,000 in 2010, to undertake engineering work, according to copies of the signed contracts provided by the water district.

Dale said he was giving the board what it wanted by undertaking engineering work, but current Board Director Patrick Harris, who came into office calling for more reform, said the contracts show the lack of accountability.

“I can’t say it’s illegal. But my impression is it’s unethical. There was absolutely no oversight,” Harris said.

Dale said: “Districts are not required to go to competitive bidding for professional services. The board selected me. And before they selected me, I stepped down as general manager.”

California farmers to get more water

California-to-get-more-water

Cattle graze in the Sites Valley, the location of a proposed reservoir, near Maxwell, Calif. Democratic Rep. John Garamendi and Republican Rep. Doug LaMalfa have proposed legislation for a federal study of the costs of building the Sites Reservoir in the valley that is about an hour’s drive north of Sacramento. California’s drought has sparked a new push by federal lawmakers to create or expand a handful of reservoirs around the state

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — Drought-stricken California farmers and cities are set to get more water as state and federal officials ease cutbacks due to recent rain and snow, officials announced on Friday.

The Department of Water Resources said it is increasing water allotments from the State Water Project from zero to 5 percent of what water districts have requested. The State Water Project supplies water to 29 public agencies serving more than 25 million Californians and irrigates nearly a million acres of farmland.

Also, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said it will supply 75 percent of the water requested by water agencies in the Sacramento Valley, up from the current 40 percent.

“This is all a bit of good news in an otherwise bleak water year,” Mark Cowin, director of the California Department of Water Resources, said on a conference call with reporters.

The state’s increase to a 5 percent allocation will make a little more than 200,000 acre-feet available. An acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre to a depth of 1 foot, and roughly enough to sustain a family of four for a year.

Federal and state officials said rain and snow from storms in February and March allowed them to increase water allotments.

The news comes as the state is experiencing its third consecutive dry year. Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency in January.

State officials said the recent storms also removed the need to immediately install rock barriers, blocking certain channels of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, to prevent saltwater intrusion. The expensive barriers would have adverse impacts on fish and wildlife and worsen water quality for some agricultural users, according to state officials.

Cowan said that the state has increased its water allotment but asked suppliers not to draw from it until after Sept. 1. Officials worry about yet another dry year for California in 2015. Cowan also urged residents to conserve their water use.

“The bottom line is we will continue to see more calls for water use restrictions throughout urban areas,” he said. “I expect those to be more and more severe over the course of the summer.”

Brian Stranko of the Nature Conservancy, which advocates for fish and wildlife, welcomed the meager increases, saying wetlands for migrating birds north of the Delta will benefit from the government’s decision to increase water flows, but wetlands in the Central Valley will continue to suffer.

He also praised the decision not to build rock barriers on the Delta, which would also block migrating salmon.

“We don’t have to do that right now,” Stranko said. “It’s a good thing.”

Jim Beck, manager of the Kern County Water Agency in Bakersfield, said most people think of a 5 percent increase as almost insignificant, but compared to receiving no water — what they had been told — that meager increase is huge. The agency provides 90 percent of its water to farmers.

“Our growers are really turning over every rock to find every bit of water,” Beck said. “This really changes things.”

All California farmers and water users get the advantage of the state’s 5 percent increase, if they’re tapped into California’s State Water Project. Others tied to the federally run Central Valley Project north of the Delta get the 75 percent increase with Friday’s announcement.

Yet those using federal water south of the Delta remain at a zero water allotment, including hundreds of Central Valley farmers who rely on the Westlands Water District, the nation’s largest supplier of water for agricultural use.

Gayle Holman, a Westlands spokeswoman, said its farmers will continue to rely on ground wells to make up for water they’re not getting from reservoirs and canals, she said.

There’s an indirect benefit to the increase in water for farmers in the north, Holman said, noting that it adds water into the system and makes water transfers a little more available for southland farmers to buy, although at top dollar.

“The situation is still very severe,” she said. “It is definitely one where growers are literally taking it day by day.”

Bigger Dams Won’t Make California Greener

FOLSOM LAKE MARINA AT FOLSOM LAKE, AT 17% CAPACITY IN FEBRUARY 2014

FOLSOM LAKE MARINA AT FOLSOM LAKE, AT 17% CAPACITY IN FEBRUARY 2014

California’s northern rivers are so low that young Chinook salmon have to be trucked on their journey to the Pacific Ocean. Yet to listen to some farmers and their political allies, you would think the fish, shielded by environmental law, are doing fine, while the state’s $45 billion agricultural economy is being sucked dry by the epic drought.

Their solution: build huge tunnels, expand big dams (federally subsidized, of course) and pipe more water from the relatively wet north to the dry south. But Mother Nature is sending a different message: California can’t count on having bounties of water to meet all the claims on it.

Although some new storage plans make sense — especially small-scale, local projects and repairs to existing infrastructure — no new mammoth public works are going to draw more water from the sky. That 20th-century strategy perpetuates wasteful agricultural practices and antiquated water-rights laws. California’s water future would be better secured through measures that make the most efficient use of every drop.

Despite the recent rainstorms, the Sierra Nevada snowpack, on which much of the state will depend for water in the dry months to come, is at a quarter of its normal level. The state hopes to rely more on groundwater, but that resource has been dangerously depleted and polluted by previous droughts and overuse. Farmers, who use 80 percent of California’s water and produce almost half of all U.S.-grown fruit, nuts and vegetables, are fallowing 500,000 of the 8 million acres cultivated.

Just 38 percent of the state’s fields are watered using efficient drip- or precision-sprinkler irrigation systems, according to a 2010 survey. Farmers who have yet to switch from flooding or spraying entire fields need the nudge of loans or rebates.

Incentives are also needed to get farmers to adopt technology to improve irrigation timing. Newer systems can measure the moisture in soil, take the weather into account and even withhold water when a crop is in a drought-tolerant stage of growth. These methods can reduce energy bills and improve crop yields and quality.

If taxpayers subsidize these improvements, farmers in turn will need to refrain from using the water they save merely to expand their operations. The state should end the “use it or lose it” system for water rights that has prevailed for too long. In some cases, it makes sense for municipalities to fund irrigation improvements in exchange for the water that farmers save.

The Pacific Institute estimates that efficiency measures could reduce agricultural water use in California by 15 percent and urban use by 30 percent. The organization calculated that a package of measures producing a savings of 1 million acre-feet of water a year would require an upfront investment of $1.87 billion. By contrast, the proposed Temperance Flat dam and reservoir — which would be federally financed — would produce just 158,000 acre-feet of water yearly, at a cost of $3.4 billion. A plan supported by Governor Jerry Brown to build two tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta would cost $25 billion.

Farmers complain they are being victimized while few city and suburb dwellers face mandatory restrictions on water use and can still enjoy their lawns and golf courses. This is a fair criticism.

Crazily, water customers in 42 California communities, including Sacramento, the state capital, still pay a flat rate. According to an analysis by the San Jose Mercury News, those places use 39 percent more water per person than the state average. Communities should charge so-called block rates for water, so that the more water a household uses, beyond a reasonable amount, the more it costs.

Localities can expand their supply by recycling more wastewater. Treated wastewater can be used for irrigating fields and landscapes, for industry and for recharging groundwater. The state already recycles about 670,000 acre-feet of treated wastewater yearly, though that’s far less than the 3.5 million acre-feet that are discharged into the Pacific.

The California Legislature should add enforcement mechanisms to a 2009 law requiring the installation of high-efficiency toilets, faucets and showerheads in commercial and residential properties by 2019. Water districts should cooperate with energy utilities to offer rebates for clothes washers that use 15 gallons of water per load instead of the 60 gallons that old machines require.

The rest of the state should follow the lead of the Metropolitan Water District, which services southern California, in paying customers to replace their lawns with plants such as salvia and agave that are adapted to the arid climate. About half the water the district sells to residences is used on landscaping.

These changes may sound minor, but in a state with more than 38 million people they add up. And they promote the goal of shared sacrifice. For all the talk of how the drought is inflaming the political divisions between cities and farms, the truth is that Californians are in this one together.

Liberia confirms spread of ‘unprecedented’ Ebola epidemic

Conakry (AFP) – Aid organisation Doctors Without Borders said Monday an Ebola outbreak suspected of killing dozens in Guinea was an “unprecedented epidemic” as Liberia confirmed its first cases of the deadly contagion.

Guinea’s health ministry this year has reported 122 “suspicious cases” of viral haemorrhagic fever, including 78 deaths, with 22 of the samples taken from patients testing positive for the highly contagious tropical pathogen.

“We are facing an epidemic of a magnitude never before seen in terms of the distribution of cases in the country: Gueckedou, Macenta, Kissidougou, Nzerekore, and now Conakry,” Mariano Lugli, the organisation’s coordinator in the Guinean capital, said in a statement.

The group, known by its French initials MSF, said that by the end of the week it would have around 60 international field workers with experience in working on haemorrhagic fever divided between Conakry and the south-east of the country.

“MSF has intervened in almost all reported Ebola outbreaks in recent years, but they were much more geographically contained and involved more remote locations,” Lugli said.

“This geographical spread is worrisome because it will greatly complicate the tasks of the organisations working to control the epidemic.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) and local health authorities have announced two Ebola cases among seven samples tested from Liberia’s northern Foya district, confirming for the first time the spread of the virus across international borders.

Liberian Health Minister Walter Gwenigale told reporters the patients were sisters, one of whom had died.

The surviving sister returned to Monrovia in a taxi before she could be isolated and the authorities fear she may have spread the virus to her taxi driver and four members of her family.

The woman and those with whom she has come into contact are in quarantine in a hospital 48 kilometres (30 miles) south-east of Monrovia, Gwenigale said.

 

— Unstoppable bleeding —

 

Ebola has killed almost 1,600 people since it was first observed in 1976 in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo but this is the first fatal outbreak in west Africa.

The tropical virus leads to haemorrhagic fever, causing muscle pain, weakness, vomiting, diarrhoea and, in severe cases, organ failure and unstoppable bleeding.

The WHO said Sierra Leone has also identified two suspected cases, both of whom died, but neither has been confirmed to be Ebola.

No treatment or vaccine is available for the bug, and the Zaire strain detected in Guinea has a historic death rate of up to 90 percent.

It can be transmitted to humans from wild animals, and between humans through direct contact with another’s blood, faeces or sweat, as well as sexual contact or the unprotected handling of contaminated corpses.

MSF said it had stepped up support for the isolation of patients in Conakry, in collaboration with the Guinean health authorities and the WHO.

“Other patients in other health structures are still hospitalised in non-optimal conditions and isolation must be reinforced in the coming days,” it added.

The WHO said it was not recommending travel or trade restrictions to Liberia, Guinea or Sierra Leone based on the current information available about the outbreak.

But Senegal has closed border crossings to Guinea “until further notice”.

California drought: How water crisis is worse for almonds

An almond tree is lifted into a wood chipper after farmer Barry Baker decided to sacrifice 1,000 acres of trees to save water in Firebaugh (Fresno County).

An almond tree is lifted into a wood chipper after farmer Barry Baker decided to sacrifice 1,000 acres of trees to save water in Firebaugh (Fresno County).

Atwater, — Merced County – A huge shift away from annual crops to nut trees has transformed the California farm belt over the past two decades and left farmers perilously vulnerable to the severe drought that is currently gripping the state.

California farmers have spent past years busily ripping out lettuce, tomatoes and other annual crops in an attempt to sate the nation’s growing appetite for almonds, pistachios and other nuts.

The delicious perennials are lucrative, but the vast orchards that have been planted throughout the Central Valley require decades-long investments, year-round watering and a commitment from Mother Nature that she is evidently unwilling to make.

The crisis is a matter of crop flexibility. During droughts, farmers can fallow fields of lettuce and other crops, then replant them years later, picking up pretty much where they left off. That’s not an option for nut trees, which need 10 years of growing and a steady supply of water before they yield enough to pay for themselves.

“These orchards are more profitable, which is why the farmers do it,” said Jay Lund, the director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis. “It brings more money into California so there are a lot of good things about it, but the farmers have to be careful because a drought can be very tough on them.”

The result is that about one-third of California’s agricultural land is, Lund said, “very hard to fallow.”

Farmers are scrounging for every drop of water they can find – digging wells, tapping aquifers and finding alternative sources. But some are coming to the stark realization that, no matter what they do, there won’t be enough water to keep their trees alive.

Barry Baker has decided to sacrifice 1,000 acres of his Fresno County almond orchard so that he can keep the remaining 4,000 acres alive.

‘Huge economic loss’

“It’s a huge economic loss,” said Baker, who looked on forlornly this past week as workers felled his beloved trees. “That’s probably $10 million in revenue I lost right there, but with the price of water today, up to $2,500 per acre-foot, there is no way I could have found the water this year. A lot of guys are going to have to make that decision in the next couple of weeks.”

Baker is actually one of the lucky ones. He has enough well water on his property to keep his remaining trees alive without having to break the bank buying overpriced water from irrigation districts. A great many farmers south of the delta don’t have that luxury.

“I think we’re going to see a lot of trees die,” he said. “It’s going to break a lot of farmers.”

The switchover from annual crops to nuts has, by all accounts, been highly profitable. Nut production in California brings in $7 billion in sales every year, with almonds by far the biggest money maker, at $4.35 billion. Only grapes, which generated $4.45 billion, sold more.

The growth is, at least in part, because of the popularity of the Mediterranean diet, which may also explain why U.S. consumption of olive oil has tripled over the past twenty years. The average American eats 1.8 pounds of almonds, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s a 36 percent increase since 2008. Consumption of walnuts, pistachios and pecans has also increased.

Extreme drought areas

Most of the orchards have been planted in areas suffering from what meteorologists call “extreme drought.”

“An increase in the planting of permanent crops since California’s last drought episode in 2009 is one reason we have concerns that this drought has the potential to be significantly worse,” said Steve Lyle, the spokesman for the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

About 3 million of the 9 million or so acres of irrigated agriculture in California are now orchards and vineyards, according to the experts. The Golden State is the nation’s top producer of tree nuts, with almonds far outpacing everything else.

 

Humberto Hernandez uses an excavator to place a dead almond tree into a wood chipper as the sun rises March 14, 2014 on a former block of almond trees on the land of Baker Farming in Firebaugh, Calif. Barry Baker decided late last year to pull up 1,000 acres of his almond trees to save water during the drought.

Humberto Hernandez uses an excavator to place a dead almond tree into a wood chipper as the sun rises March 14, 2014 on a former block of almond trees on the land of Baker Farming in Firebaugh, Calif. Barry Baker decided late last year to pull up 1,000 acres of his almond trees to save water during the drought.

There are more than 800,000 acres of almonds in California compared with 418,000 acres in 1995. Production also doubled, from 912 million pounds in 2006 to 1.88 billion in 2013. California produces 82 percent of the world’s almonds, which are neck and neck with grapes as the highest valued crop in the United States.

Meanwhile, most field crops have been cut back. There was, for instance, 1.5 million acres of cotton in California 25 or 30 years ago. Now there is only 300,000 to 400,000 acres, said Daniel Sumner, of the Agricultural Issues Center at the University of California at Davis.

Dairymen, ranchers hurt

The situation is also bad for dairy farmers and ranchers, according to Pete Craig, who owns a large cattle ranch near Lake Berryessa. He said the planting of almond orchards has taken thousands of acres of grazing land away from ranchers, many of whom are selling cattle because of a lack of feed.

“My company has lost over 8,000 acres of grasslands that I leased for cattle grazing to almonds in the last year alone,” said Craig, who believes it is bad for the environment to replace California’s diverse grassland ecosystem with a monoculture. “It is impossible to compete against a very realistic $5,000 acre net return for a tree farmer, versus a $15 acre return on native rangeland, and perhaps a $100 acre return on irrigated ground to a cattle rancher. If you were a landowner, what would you do?”

Almonds have always been big in California. The Golden State, with its Mediterranean climate, is the world’s top producer of the nut. Still, the recent expansion of the almond industry has been unprecedented, and there lies the problem.

Almond trees must get 3 to 4 acre-feet of water per acre every year or nut production will decrease for an extended period of time. An acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre of land in a foot of water.

“When you cut back on water, it stresses the tree, and when an almond tree is under stress, it produces fewer nuts,” said David Baker, the director of member relations for Blue Diamond Growers, an agricultural cooperative that specializes in marketing almonds. “The problem is, they will not recover for 3 or 4 years even if the drought breaks.”

Replacing almonds with a different crop is not normally a viable option. It costs as much as $6,000 an acre to plant an almond orchard and raise the trees until they are 5 years old, about the time it takes them to begin producing almonds. It takes about a decade before the orchard produces enough almonds to pay for itself, according to farmers.

“Almonds are a huge investment,” said Craig Arnold, who grows almonds on 800 acres of his 1,200-acre farm in Atwater (Merced County) that his great grandfather, Lawrence, built after leaving San Francisco following the earthquake in 1906.

The Merced Irrigation District, which gets its water from nearly empty Lake McClure, recently told Arnold he would be getting only about 6 inches of water per acre this year. Arnold said almonds and peaches require at least 30 inches of water per acre, which is the amount he received last year.

Can’t afford to let trees die

“We have been trying to figure out what we are going to do,” Arnold said recently as he stood near the family farmhouse, which he oversees with his father and uncle. “It’s the almonds and the peaches that I worry about. I can choose not to plant everything else for a year, but I can’t afford to let the trees die.”

Arnold’s plan right now is to leave fallow 250 acres of sweet potatoes and squash and use the water to keep his almonds and peaches alive. He has already converted 75 percent of his orchards to low volume drip or micro sprinkler irrigation and recently hired workers to refurbish an old well on his property that hasn’t been used in decades.

Farmers are, in fact, sinking a large number of new wells across the state, but irrigating with well water can be problematic. Harmful salts and minerals from the aquifer can kill trees and damage crops. Wells can also cause the water table to drop, creating a whole new set of problems.

Nut prices to rise

It is a balancing act that thousands of farmers are now facing. One thing that is certain is that there will be huge economic losses and the price of almonds and other nuts will go up as production goes down.

“I have heard that between 200,000 and 250,000 acres will have significant reductions in production as a result of water shortages,” said Dan Cummings, who grows 4,000 acres of almonds in Butte, Colusa and Glenn counties. “California produces almost 2 billion pounds of almonds. Think about it. If 200 million pounds of that is not produced, that’s $700 million that doesn’t go to the farmer. It’s huge.”

And it could actually get worse before it gets better.

“Another year of this and you will see even the people who planned ahead getting hurt really bad,” said Baker, the farmer who cut down 1,000 acres of orchard just so he could stay afloat another year. “It will really be a disaster next year.”

Cloud seeding: What it can and can’t do for water shortages

Technology has come a long way, but it’s still no ‘drought buster,’ expert says

Cloud seeding: What it can and can't do for water shortages

Cloud seeding: What it can and can’t do for water shortages

Want more snow? Probably not, if you’re on the East Coast. But in drought-prone Arizona, they’re working on it.

The Central Arizona Project (CAP), the agency that controls and operates the canal that redirects water from the Colorado River into Arizona, is researching snow-making techniques made possible by cloud seeding, AZCentral.com reports. The project could pump up Arizona’s water supply by 5 to 10 percent.

Cloud seeding is not a particularly new technology, but the science of it today “is substantially different than what folks were doing in the ’70s, when cloud seeding was oversold as a technology,” Chuck Cullom, a geologist and CAP’s Colorado River program manager, told Yahoo News.

But does it work? Cullom said he’s careful about exaggerations, but “the state of the science and the state of the technology today indicates that a well-operated cloud seeding program can increase snow production in a storm. The peer-reviewed science journal articles support that statement. That wasn’t true 20 years ago.”

What’s changed? “The reason it’s different is we have better instruments that tell us which clouds [and] which storm events are susceptible to improving their snow productivity.”

That’s not a cure for lack of rain, though, Cullom said. “Cloud seeding is not a drought buster. Its focus is on increasing normal year snowpack. We’re making the snow formation in the cloud more efficient.”

The generators that produce an aerosol that acts as a catalyst are based on the ground. When placed on a high enough surface, like a mountain, they can almost touch the bottom of a cloud. “We just turn on the generators to introduce the aerosol and start the snow formation or increase the snow formation.”

The process doesn’t produce moisture, however, or make clouds. “Cloud seeding doesn’t stop a low snow year, but it can make a normal year better and a dry year not so horrible,” Cullom said.