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Executive Summary for July 24th

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 24, 2015 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Water Theft Case Highlights Lack of Data

The State Water Resources Control Board’s $1.5 million fine against Byron-Bethany Irrigation District has been much publicized over the past week. It is the first such prosecution of a water-rights violation during the drought this calendar year. But in reality, it is a routine act by the board, among dozens of such actions undertaken ever year that never get any attention from the public or the media.

What’s different this time is that it comes amid the worst drought in California’s recorded history. The public and the media are paying close attention to how this enforcement system works. And the San Jose Mercury News today tells us something else that’s different about it: Records of the violation in this case are unusually clear-cut, because Byron-Bethany was drawing water from a canal attached to the State Water Project, which is monitored very closely. Ample records are available, apparently, to document the unauthorized diversion.

That isn’t the case in most allegations of illegal water diversion, however, because unlike many states, California does not require diverters to conduct any real-time monitoring. Instead, many are obligated only to file self-reported forms once every three years. That’s all state law requires. These forms, in turn, are rarely subjected to any field verification, because the water board’s enforcement staff is so small (fewer than 30 people to cover the entire state).

As a result, it can take years to prosecute cases of illegal water diversion, moving them through the water board’s enforcement system, which is convoluted in other ways. The alleged illegal diversion is often allowed to continue the entire time, until a final resolution of the case occurs.

Thus, the Byron-Bethany case points to the need for robust tracking of water diversion everywhere in the state.

“Every drought teaches different lessons, and that’s the lesson this drought is going to teach,” said Andrew Tauriainen, an attorney for the water board.

Let’s hope so.

Nestle Tapping California Water on Expired Permit

Nestle Corp. has been bottling spring water from the San Bernardino Mountains using a permit that expired 27 years ago.

Ian James at The Desert Sun newspaper also reports that Nestle pays only $524 a year to use the water for its Arrowhead bottled-water brand. And that the water has continued to flow even though its permit with the San Bernardino National Forest expired in 1988. Not only that, the former forest supervisor now works as a Nestle consultant.

Over those 27 years, James reports, the Forest Service repeatedly dropped the ball in terms of renewing the permit, a process that should have involved a full assessment of the environmental impact of Nestle’s water withdrawals.

“I think it was convenient for the Forest Service and Nestle to not take action on that permit,” Steve Loe, a retired Forest Service biologist, told the newspaper.

The permit is among more than 600 water-related “special use” permits that are overdue for renewal by the Forest Service in California – more than half of all such permits on Forest Service lands. The agency blamed budget cuts for the backlog.

Economists Getting Worried About Prolonged Drought

Water scarcity is considered the No. 1 global risk to “economies, environments and people,” according to a new analysis by Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

“We view the unprecedented drought in California as a harbinger of the coming global water crisis,” the analysts wrote in a note to clients Tuesday.

The report estimates California’s water supply could be more than 13 trillion gallons short of demand by 2060. It also says the state faces an 80 percent chance of a multi-decade “mega-drought” this century.

“Global water demand is set to overshoot supply by 40 percent by 2030, and by 2050, 3.9 billion people will be living under ‘severe’ water stress,” the analysts state.

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