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Executive Summary for July 17th

For an overview of the latest news on the California drought, we’ve organized the most recent developments in a curated summary.

Published on July 17, 2015 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

California Drought Carries Climate Change Fingerprints

Many are wondering if climate change is the cause of California’s ongoing four-year drought. According to Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California is experiencing the intersection of drought and climate change.

“I think that we are and I think that this past winter is representative of what we will very likely be seeing more of in the future,” Famiglietti, also a professor of Earth system science at UC Irvine, told Capital Public Radio.

He said the arrival of an El Niño weather pattern, which is filling the headlines this week, is unlikely to end the drought even if it does bring wet weather to California, which is far from certain.

Why? The four-year drought has drastically depleted water supplies not just in California’s reservoirs, but in its groundwater aquifers, its soils and forests.

“The deficit right now is somewhere around 12 trillion gallons of water,” says Famiglietti. “That’s going to take about three years of above-average precipitation.”

A new three-month forecast, released on Thursday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), shows increased odds for wet weather in the southern third of the state, no doubt a result of El Niño. But that forecast only goes through October, and what really matters are the crucial winter months beyond that.

As this TIME storywisely points out, wet conditions in Southern California won’t help the statewide drought. Wet weather is needed in the_northern_third of the state to boost the all-important mountain snowpack, and there is “almost no correlation” between precipitation in this region and El Niño.

State Orders Irrigation District to Stop Pumping

The State Water Resources Control Board on Thursday ordered the West Side Irrigation District in Tracy to stop diverting water from Old River, a tributary of the San Joaquin River.

It is the first cease-and-desist order issued by the board as a result of drought conditions in 2015. And it could be the first of many.

The board asserts that the district ignored a May 1 order requiring all those with post-1914 water rights to cease their diversions from the San Joaquin River and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. According to the board, the district was observed pumping water out of Old River on May 18.

The Associated Press points outthe matter is in dispute partly because of California’s outdated water-rights system and its inability to do any real-time monitoring of diversions. The state water board has only 23 inspectors to police some 9,000 water-right curtailments handed down since May.

“In any other state, this wouldn’t be a question,” said Buzz Thompson, a water rights expert at Stanford University.

Birds Dying as Drought Ravages Avian Highways

It’s shaping up to be a difficult year for migratory birds passing through California.

The Pacific Flyway courses through California, where the state’s wetlands, rivers and coastline provide vital food and habitat for millions of migratory birds transiting the planet. This includes ducks, geese, wading birds and songbirds.

This summer, and especially in fall, those birds are going to find a lot less to sustain them, the environmental journalist Jane Kay reportsfor National Geographic. There isn’t enough water to allow wildlife refuge areas to operate at capacity, and rice farmers in the Central Valley have sharply reduced planting, which normally provides important habitat.

It’s likely many birds will die, either from starvation or from disease caused by crowding into ever-shrinking habitats. Some birds may switch to new foods in an effort to survive, and some will take risks to try unconventional habitats, like urban areas.

“Those birds that don’t figure it out are not going to pass on their genes,” says Josiah Clark, a champion birder.

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