Bigger Dams Won’t Make California Greener



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.

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, 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.

The Rio Grande has run dry – March 19th, 2014


The Rio Grande in New Mexico March 19th, 2014

The Rio Grande in New Mexico March 19th, 2014

In this March 19, 2013, file photo, a trickle of water left in the Rio Grande is pushed downstream by the wind near the chile growing community of Hatch, N.M. In southern New Mexico, the mighty Rio Grande has gone dry, and farmers are worried about dwindling water supplies as the state enters its third straight year of drought. Top climate scientists are gathering in Japan this week to finish up a report on the impact of global warming. And they say if you think climate change is only faced by some far-off polar bear decades from now, well, you’re mistaken. They say the dangers of a warming Earth are immediate and human. While it doesn’t say these events were caused by climate change, the report mentions droughts in northern Mexico and south-central United States, as showing how vulnerable people are to these weather extremes.

Congress focuses on dams amid California’s drought

WASHINGTON (AP) — California’s drought has sparked a new push by federal lawmakers to create or expand a handful of reservoirs around the state, ramping up a political battle that former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger once referred to as a “holy war in some ways.”

Government agencies have been studying five major water storage projects for nearly two decades, with nothing to show for the effort so far.

Meanwhile, the state’s water problems have only grown worse. California has had its third relatively dry winter in a row and court rulings have mandated that more water be released from reservoirs to sustain fish species in Northern California’s delta. At the same time, the nation’s most populous state, now at 38 million residents, continues to grow beyond the capacity of a water storage and delivery system that was mostly completed in the late 1960s.

This winter is among the driest on record, forcing some communities to ration water and leading farmers to fallow thousands of acres that otherwise would be producing vegetables, fruits and nuts for the nation.

The state Legislature is expected to debate water storage options later this year as it seeks compromise on a multibillion dollar water bond for the November ballot. But California’s congressional delegation has provided a jumpstart.

Bills proposed in Congress would authorize a number of projects to expand or create reservoirs. Among the projects are raising the dam at Shasta Lake to store more water in California’s largest reservoir, creating a new reservoir in the Sierra Nevada along the upper San Joaquin River east of Fresno and damming a valley north of Sacramento.

Other storage options include expanding the dams at the San Luis Reservoir in the central part of the state and at Los Vaqueros Reservoir in the eastern San Francisco Bay Area.

Authorizing such projects through federal legislation would be a prerequisite for dedicating money to a project in the future.

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said those who oppose new or expanded dams are hoping that doing so will deter growth and development, but it’s a losing battle.

“Growth comes anyway,” she said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “Then you don’t have enough water.”

Feinstein acknowledges that conservation also is critical to meeting the state’s water needs but said some new or expanded reservoirs must be allowed so more water can be captured during wet years and stored for use during the dry ones.

“They have a certain prior, I don’t know how to put it, stigma to them,” she said of dams. “But this is a different day now. And it’s a day that’s been coming for a long time. Somehow, we’ve got to measure up to it.”

In California, water often is a shared commodity between the federal government, the state and local users.

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Congress focuses on dams amid California's drought

Peterson Road is seen in the the Sites Valley, the location of a proposed reservoir, near Maxwell,  …

Feinstein is urging the state Legislature to modify the bond measure on the November ballot to prioritize both water storage and conservation. She would like to see $3 billion dedicated in the bond to developing storage, with an additional $2 billion set aside for restoring the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the heart of California’s water-delivery system.

Doing so would be intended to appease both farmers and the environmentalists.

No doubt there will be opposition. The $1 billion proposal to raise the dam at Shasta, for example, would flood part of the McCloud River, one of the most picturesque rivers in the state. It also would inundate several sacred sites of the Winnemem Wintu, a small tribe that is not federally recognized.

In general, creating and expanding reservoirs are among the most expensive and environmentally harmful ways to address California’s water issues, said Doug Obegi, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. He said investing in water recycling, storm water capture in urban areas and similar projects provides a greater return on investment.

He said he failed to see how the current storage projects would help California’s overall water supply, with so many reservoirs already far below their capacity.

“It just doesn’t add up to a lot of water,” he said.

Peter Gleick, director of the Pacific Institute and one of California’s leading water experts, said major dam projects “worked fine when there was new water to be had and when we didn’t care about the environment. But those days are over.”

Republicans already have pushed through legislation in the House that would authorize construction for four of the storage projects. But the main thrust of the bill, sponsored by Republican Rep. David Valadao and co-sponsored by every GOP member of California’s delegation, would cease the implementation of a lawsuit settlement designed to restore salmon populations on the San Joaquin River.

Water dedicated to maintaining fish and wildlife would instead go to farmers and communities who receive water through the federal Central Valley Project. That bill has no chance to pass the Senate in its current form.

As an alternative, Feinstein and fellow California Sen. Barbara Boxer, also a Democrat, are pushing legislation that would give state and federal agencies more flexibility to pump water out of the delta to aid farmers, as long as the pumping does not violate the Endangered Species Act.

But one aspect of the House bill Feinstein endorses is the call for more major storage projects.

“We should have some federal authorization of dam projects that have a positive cost-benefit ratio,” she told the AP.

The sharpest difference between the House bill and what Democrats seek is that the House version relies strictly on the state to pay for new or larger dams. Democrats say the federal government should help cover some of the costs.

Rep. Jim Costa, a Democrat from the Central Valley farming region, said he doubts the projects will get off the ground without federal money.

He has sponsored three bills — to authorize expanding the dams at Shasta Lake and San Luis Reservoir, and to build the Temperance Flat dam on the San Joaquin River. Cost-sharing arrangements, which he called crucial to the projects eventually getting built, would be negotiated later.

Costa rejected the sentiment that conservation and recycling should be relied upon instead. He said the drought is so severe that every tool is needed.

“You cannot recycle in enough quantities to irrigate half the nation’s fruits and vegetables,” he said. “It’s really that simple.”

He said he believes prospects for more storage are better now because more parts of the state are feeling the pain from the drought.

Others are more pessimistic. During a congressional hearing last week in Fresno, Republican Rep. Tom McClintock, who represents a vast district in Northern California, said a “radical ideology” has made its way into California water policy.

“Translation: That means these dams will not get built,” he said.

Warmest winter on record worsens California drought

Warmest winter on record worsens California drought

A sercret service agent looks over a farm field as President Barack Obama speaks to the media on California's drought situation in Los Banos

A sercret service agent looks over a farm field as President Barack Obama speaks to the media on California’s …

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – California is coming off of its warmest winter on record, aggravating an enduring drought in the most populous U.S. state, federal weather scientists said Monday.

The state had a average temperature of 48 Fahrenheit (9 Celsius) for December, January and February, an increase from 47.2 F in 1980-81, the last hottest winter, and more than 4 degrees hotter than the 20th-century average in California, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said in a statement.

Warmer winters could make the already parched state even drier by making it less likely for snow to accumulate in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, NOAA spokesman Brady Phillips said. That snow, melting in the spring and summer and running down through the state’s rivers, is vital for providing water in the summer, when the state typically experiences little rain.

“Winter is when states like California amass their main water budget, when snowpack is building,” said Phillips, a marine biologist. “If you’re starting from a deficit and going into the dry season, it’s setting you up for a drier summer.”

California is in the grip of a three-year dry spell that threatens to have devastating effects on 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, despite recent storms, with an average of 4.5 inches of rainfall, compared to 11.7 inches over the previous winter, NOAA said.

Around the West and in the Great Plains, multiple states also experienced warmer temperatures and low rainfall. Arizona had its fourth warmest winter to date and Texas had it lowest reservoir levels in 25 years by March.

Despite regional heavy snow pummeling regions the eastern region of the country, overall rainfall across the United States was far below normal. An average of 5.7 inches of rain fell overall in the United States in the past three months, causing the ninth driest winter on record, NOAA said.

Climatologists and other scientists with NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center record a summary of temperatures and rainfall for all 50 states each month. Every three months, the federal agency releases data on spring, summer, fall and winter weather.

The agency is planning to release its spring outlook climate forecast on Thursday.

California drought: Who gets water, who doesn’t, fuels calls for change

As the Imperial Valley, with access to out-of-state water, thrives, stricken Central Valley farmers are striking over state water restrictions. As water shortages turn dire, age-old contracts are suspect.


California’s drought may be statewide, but for now, depending on where you live, the experience of the state’s worst water shortage in history is significantly uneven.

Residents of the tiny northern town of Willits, for instance, who rely on reservoirs that have run dangerously low, are just now back down to a Phase 4 water emergency (out of a possible five) with mandatory conservation measures, such as a 35 percent usage cut and a ban on all new water hookups. The town of some 5,000 tops the state’s Department of Health list for communities that are in danger of running out of water.

At the same time, farther south, farmers in the Imperial Valley who still have access to a steady supply of water shipped in from the Colorado River, are busily tending fields of alfalfa, broccoli, cabbage, and lettuce, among other crops.

The reasons for these disparities are historically complex, with many contracts drawn up decades ago. In the case of Los Angeles, they can also be controversial – as anyone who has seen Hollywood’s take on southern California water wars in “Chinatown” (1974) might agree.

Even as Imperial Valley farmers are surviving the drought, Central Valley farmers, who do not have access to out-of-state water and must rely on state water allocations, are striking this week over tightening water restrictions.

But the one thing farmers and city-dwellers can agree on is that as population pressures increase, these water shortages are likely to grow worse.

As California tackles the thorny problems of balancing urban and agricultural water demands, the state is helping chart a road map for the rest of the country, says David Cassuto, an expert in water law and professor at Pace Law School in White Plains, N.Y. “Every time California has a drought, there is a revisiting of these urban agricultural contracts and some changes are made,” he says.

But this time, the situation is more dire.

“Will this drought emergency bring about more significant changes?” he asks. “The answer is that it needs to. There is no question that this drought has provided a more urgent wakeup call than any in the past, because it is more severe. It’s not if, but when and how.”

The contracts will have to be revisited, he says, “because there is simply no way anyone has come up with to sustain current contracts and patterns.”

Such talk sends a chill through the hearts of multigenerational farmers of the Imperial Valley, such as Jack Vessey, whose father and grandfather tended the lands he now farms. He and many of his fellow businessmen fear that, once again, when water runs short, agriculture will lose out to urban needs.

“The cities have much more political power than the farmers,” he says. The Imperial Valley contract for Colorado River water was amended a decade ago to sell water to a needy San Diego, and many farmers mow must fallow thousands of acres a year to meet the terms of the sale to San Diego. Overall, the nonprofit California Farm Water Coalition (CFWC) estimates that water shortages statewide will drive some 800,000 farm acres into fallow this year.

Mr. Vessey is quick to counter what he feels is a false perception that farmers are wasteful with water. “We are far more efficient than in the past,” he says, noting innovations such as as drip irrigation.

The overall agriculture industry has boosted production per acre-foot of water by some 85 percent since 1967, with a 14 percent reduction in actual water use, according to the CFWC.

Equally damaging, notes Vessey, is the perception gap about the importance of what agriculture does. “We provide half the nation’s produce,” he says, in addition to providing work for the local economy. “We have around 400 workers here whose jobs depend on these crops,” he adds.

Vessey suggests there is a “serious disconnect” between farmers and urban dwellers, and that this leads to talks of cutting off water supplies to farmlands in favor of the major cities. “Kids these days think milk and bread just comes from stores,” he says. Initiatives sponsored by Imperial Valley farmers to counter the education gap include putting gardens in urban schools, he says.

The farmers’ concerns make sense, says Doug Parker, director at the California Institute for Water Resources at the University of California. He expects “long-run re-allocations, though we may be talking decades into the future,” he says via e-mail. On the flip side, he says he does not believe that the agricultural community appreciates how much the urban sector is spending to increase or stabilize their own water supplies.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, Los Angeles uses the same amount of water it did in 1970, despite adding a million residents since then. The area’s Metropolitan Water District has invested in new reservoirs and underground water banks, meaning L.A. may not need to impose water rationing for at least another two years.

However, Mr. Parker adds, there is also “an urban belief that agriculture can just produce more food with less water.” Agriculture is far more efficient than it was 30 years ago, he points out.

Nonetheless, combined consumption by agriculture, industry, and municipalities continues to outstrip the savings, exacerbated by population growth in both urban and rural areas, says Kaplan University professor Lynn Wilson, who is serving on a climate change delegation to the United Nations. Perhaps the “disconnect” between urban and agricultural water use is in part perception; each needs the other to thrive in the interconnected economy and society, she says via e-mail. “Perhaps a new way of looking at water needs to be considered.”

Indeed, if this drought is teaching anything, it is the importance of shifting from long-distance water use to local water practices, says Hadley Arnold, cofounder and director of the Arid Lands Institute at Woodbury University in Burbank, Calif. She says we have been relying on importing water over large distances for a large portion of our water supplies for centuries, she says, “but that’s going to shift.”

The move to localize water supplies will happen through a mix of initiatives, she says.

“We are going to start to see a combination of conservation, water recycling, and multitiered treatment levels and, importantly, storm water reclamation and capture over time that will reverse the proportions,” shifting the needs for imported water to more local usage, says Ms. Arnold.

In drought-stricken California, court rules smelt fish get water

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – A California appeals court sided with environmentalists over growers on Thursday and upheld federal guidelines that limit water diversions to protect Delta smelt, in a battle over how the state will cope with its worst drought in a century.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a lower court should not have overturned recommendations that the state reduce exports of water from north to south California. The plan leaves more water in the Sacramento Delta for the finger-sized fish and have been blamed for exacerbating the effects of drought for humans.

Reaction from both sides was swift in the national political issue. In a blog post, Damien Schiff, an attorney for growers, said the ruling “bodes ill for farmers, farm laborers and millions of other Californians dependent on a reliable water supply.”

Efforts to save the Delta smelt, which lives only in the wetlands stretching north of San Francisco, have been described as a humans versus fish battle.

Kate Poole, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said growers’ hopes of taking more water out of the Delta wouldn’t solve California’s problems.

“It’s the drought, not the Delta, that’s affecting the water supply this year,” Poole said in a statement. “While we can’t make it rain, we can take charge of our water use by investing in smart water practices that protect and preserve our water supply.”

At issue is a 2008 report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which concluded that the fish’s existence was threatened and recommended limited exports of water to farmers and southern California. Farmers and allies sued, and a lower court called the federal biological opinion “arbitrary and capricious.”

However, in the opinion on Thursday, 9th Circuit Judge Jay Bybee ruled that the lower court should have been more deferential to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Bybee, an appointee of President George W. Bush, is considered a consistent conservative voice on the 9th Circuit.

“We recognize the enormous practical implications of this decision,” Bybee wrote. “But the consequences were prescribed when Congress determined that ‘these species of fish, wildlife, and plants are of esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation and its people.'”

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice, which represented wildlife regulators, said it was pleased with the ruling.

Paul Weiland, an attorney who represented Kern County Water Agency and a coalition of Central Valley water users in the case, said he hopes the ruling will clear the way for all sides to come together and make progress on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

The plan seeks to restore the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta ecosystems and secure California water supplies into the future. A draft of the plan is currently open for public comment.

“While these cases are pending it is difficult for the parties to make concessions,” he said. “To the extent that this hits the reset button, it works to everyone’s advantage in the sense that the parties don’t have to be sticking to their litigation positions anymore.”

That progress could be delayed if one or more of the parties in the case ask the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to rehear the case or ask for a Supreme Court review, Weiland said.

Thursday’s ruling could also pave the way for a ruling in a pending case involving the water needs of wild salmon and steelhead trout in the state, which involves many of the same players. A February hearing on that case was postponed until after the Delta smelt decision was handed down.

The Delta smelt case in the 9th Circuit is San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority et al. vs. Sally Jewell et al., 11-15871.

(Reporting by Dan Levine; Additional reporting by Rory Carroll; Editing by Stephen Powell, Peter Henderson and Richard Chang)

More Fukushima Updates Courtesy of FUKULEAKS.ORG


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Japan Plans to Restart Some Nuclear Plants in 2015 After Fukushima Shutdown
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Previously one of the world's largest producers of nuclear-generated electricity, Japan has relied heavily on fossil fuels following the meltdown at Fukushima Dai-ichi and subsequent shutdown of the country's nuclear fleet. In 2013, when almost all of ...

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Here comes El Nino – Say goodbye to drought in the west


El Nino makes a return to the Pacific Ocean
WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal forecasters predict a warming of the central Pacific Ocean this year that will change weather worldwide. And that’s good news for a weather-weary United States.

The warming, called an El Nino, is expected to lead to fewer Atlantic hurricanes and more rain next winter for drought-stricken California and southern states, and even a milder winter for the nation’s frigid northern tier next year, meteorologists say.

Globally, it can mean an even hotter year coming up and billions of dollars in losses for food crops.

The National Oceanic Atmospheric and Administration issued an official El Nino watch Thursday. An El Nino is a warming of the central Pacific once every few years, from a combination of wind and waves in the tropics. It shakes up climate around the world, changing rain and temperature patterns.

Mike Halpert, acting director of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, says the El Nino warming should develop by this summer, but that there are no guarantees. Although early signs are appearing already a few hundred feet below the ocean surface, meteorologists say an El Nino started to brew in 2012 and then shut down suddenly and unexpectedly.

The flip side of El Nino is called a La Nina, which has a general cooling effect. It has been much more frequent than El Ninos lately, with five La Ninas and two small-to-moderate El Ninos in the past nine years. The last big El Nino was 1997-1998. Neither has appeared since mid-2012. El Ninos are usually strongest from December to April.

Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, who wasn’t part of NOAA’s forecast, agreed that an El Nino is brewing.

“This could be a substantial event and I think we’re due,” Trenberth said. “And I think it could have major consequences.”

Scientific studies have tied El Ninos to farming and fishing problems and to upticks in insect-born disease, such as malaria. Commodity traders even track El Nino cycles. A study by Texas A&M University economics professor Bruce McCarl found the last big El Nino of 1997-1998 cost about $3 billion in agricultural damage.

Trenberth said this El Nino may even push the globe out of a decade-long slowdown in temperature increase, “so suddenly global warming kicks into a whole new level.”

Halpert, however, says El Ninos can be beneficial, and that the one being forecast is “a perfect case.”

After years of dryness and low reservoirs, an El Nino’s wet weather would be welcome in places like California, Halpert said.

“If they get too much rain, I think they’d rather have that situation rather than another year of drought,” Halpert said. “Sometimes you have to pick your poison.”

Australia and South Africa should be dry while parts of South America become dry and parts become wet in an El Nino. Peru suffers the most, getting floods and poorer fishing.



NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center El Nino page:

Coca-Cola and Nestle Are Sucking Us Dry Without Our Even Knowing

The droughts currently ravaging California, which will likely send food prices soaring down the road, have highlighted the importance of available freshwater supplies. As 17 communities in California are within 60 days of running out of drinking water, the ability of companies like Coca-Cola and Nestle   to effectively privatize water supplies feels awfully disconcerting. While the rains that just began to fall out west may bring some measure of relief, the fact remains that the world is coming up hard against a water crisis.

Source: Jonathan McIntosh, Wikimedia Commons.

In thirsty regions of the world, Coca-Cola and Nestle have repeatedly clashed with communities over the perception that the companies were commandeering scarce water supplies at the expense of small farmers and poor villages. While both companies have deployed aggressive water conservation campaigns, with an understanding that water is an essential input to their businesses, Nestle and Coca-Cola have long faced accusations that they suck vulnerable communities dry in pursuit of their profit motives.

Nestle’s chairman, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, believes that water privatization is the key to solving water scarcity issues. Activists see water as a fundamental human right. What should we believe? More importantly, which approach actually improves access to water for the thirstiest among us?

Water, water, everywhere … right?
Most people view water as an infinite, inexhaustible resource, much like air. After all, it’s part of a whole natural cycle, right? For most practical purposes, though, water — especially clean, safe drinking water — is resolutely finite and exhaustible. It’s getting worse as the global population hurtles toward the 9-billion mark, as agricultural and fuel extraction guzzle more and more water, and as climate change adds growing stress to existing supplies.

Consider a few alarming indicators:

  • One in seven people around the world lack access to safe drinking water.
  • The Global Economic Forum identifies water crises as the third most serious risk the world faces in 2014.
  • The poorest 20% of households in El Salvador, Jamaica, and Nicaragua spend up to 10% of their income on water.
  • From 2003 to 2010, parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran lost 144 cubic kilometers of stored freshwater — about the same amount of water as there is in the Dead Sea. Many scholars draw a solid line between water scarcity and the recent conflicts in those regions, and the U.S. director of national intelligence sees global water overuse as a potential threat to national security.
  • NASA data from Jan. 17 showed California’s backup groundwater reserves to be so depleted that the losses could be detected from satellites 400 kilometers above the earth’s surface.

Source: California Department of Water Resources.

Water: human right or commodity?
Because the stakes are so high — water is perhaps the single most critical factor to sustaining human life, and no part of our economy can function without it — the discourse around this issue has reached a fever pitch. Many people view the whole matter in moral terms: water is an essential human right, and so any attempt to commoditize it is fundamentally wrong.

Certainly, water privatization has a checkered history. There are plenty of cases where it has been done poorly, leading to rate hikes, diminished water quality, corruption, and the marginalization of the poorest and thirstiest members of communities. Activists were horrified, then, when Nestle’s chairman dismissed the right to water in a 2005 documentary as an “absurd notion.”

To be fair, that was one unfortunate comment — on which Brabeck-Letmathe has since backtracked — in the context of a much broader, more nuanced discussion that has some merit. The point Brabeck-Letmathe and others make is that right now, the cost of vital drinking water for the poorest of the poor is the same as the cost of massive, wasteful withdrawals for non-essential purposes by wealthy interests: namely, almost free. This imbalance encourages inefficient use of our water resources, and there is no incentive for that to change.

“Americans are spoiled. We turn on the tap and out comes a limitless amount of high-quality water for less money than we pay for cell-phone service or cable television,” explains Robert Glennon, author of Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What We Can Do About It. “Because water is so cheap, people don’t value it.”

Public, private, or something in between
The proposal from Glennon’s ideological quarter is that while we first have an obligation to assure that people’s most essential water needs are met, we need to introduce an appropriate price for water beyond that basic threshold. Price signals and market forces can lead to more efficient water allocation. Brabeck-Letmathe’s argument largely tracks along the same lines.

Human beings need five liters a day for hydration and 25 liters a day for minimum hygiene. That accounts for a whopping 1.5% of freshwater extraction for human purposes. Unconventional fuel-source extraction and ever-thirstier agriculture account for a wildly disproportionate share of the rest. The thinking goes that if there were a value placed on that remaining 98.5% of the water we use, we might use it in a more appropriate manner.

There is evidence from privatization schemes around the world that there can be benefits. Many water systems in poor countries would not exist at all if it had not been for private funding. Water infrastructure across multiple countries is in need of massive investment, whether because no system yet exists or because the system has aged well beyond its functional life. Evidence also shows that consumers of all stripes tend to conserve water when it has a price.

So, then, Nestle and Coke for president?
Does that mean that Nestle and Coca-Cola are our water saviors? Well, no, not really. While Brabeck-Letmathe’s assertions have real merit that warrant serious consideration, Nestle itself remains a big part of the problem, as does Coca-Cola.

Source: DeviantArt/Latuff2.

The companies’ conflicts with communities in Latin America, Asia, and Africa are too numerous and sordid to be invented from whole cloth. Moreover, the simple fact is that sucking groundwater out of one place, bottling it, and shipping it for sale in another place that typically already has perfectly safe public water ranks high on the list of stupid things to do with scarce water.

So yes, Coca-Cola and Nestle are indeed sucking us dry. So are our modern agricultural practices and unconventional oil and gas extraction, to an even greater extent. A blended privatization scheme may indeed be part of the solution, but if it’s done right, it will only make life harder for Coke and Nestle.