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Executive Summary for July 27th

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 27, 2015 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Important Delta Waters Getting Saltier

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is getting saltier as a result of the drought, potentially threatening urban and agricultural water supplies.

The delta is the hub of California’s freshwater distribution system. The largest estuary on the west coast of the Americas, its natural function is to gather runoff from California’s two largest rivers and funnel it to the sea. Over the past 80 years, it has been engineered with massive pumps and canals to divert freshwater to farms and cities from San Jose to San Diego.

Part of the engineering is designed to keep the delta artificially fresh to protect water diversions. This is done by releasing water from upstream reservoirs to repel salt that would normally move in on the tides. But during severe drought there isn’t enough upstream freshwater to serve that function.

And so, it’s no surprise that a particularly high tide last week pushed salt further into the estuary. The question now is how bad it will get. The big risk is that the salinity will intrude far enough that it could linger for weeks or months, especially with no significant change in freshwater outflow expected. This could require freshwater diversion to be halted, worsening the drought for some water users.

The California Department of Water Resources in June built an emergency salinity barrier across a key delta channel. The rock barrier – a temporary dam, essentially – is intended to keep salinity from moving too far into the central delta.

Officials report that it is working, so far, although not well enough to violate salinity standards at two locations. Those standards had previously been loosened by state regulators so state and federal officials could hold back more water in upstream reservoirs, partly to meet water demand later in the year.

In complaints filed last week, environmental groups warned those looser salinity standards could imperil fish already on the verge of extinction, such as the tiny delta smelt.

“The system is really in quite a crisis,” said Tim Stroshane, policy advisor at Restore the Delta, one of the groups that submitted a complaint.

Leaks? What Leaks?

A new survey by the University of California, Los Angeles finds that most water utilities in the locality don’t know how much their pipes are leaking.

In the survey, researchers examined 10 water agencies in the Los Angeles area and found they have no way of knowing how much water is lost to leaks. States such as Texas, Georgia and Washington encourage and train water agencies to audit their systems to hunt for leaks. But not California.

“It appears that most retailers don’t think of minimizing leaks and breaks as a conservation responsibility, despite the cost and scarcity of water in California,” said Madelyn Glickfeld, co-author of the study and director of the UCLA Water Resources Group.

Wildfires Erupt Across North State

California burns every summer. It gets worse during droughts, when vegetation dries into especially volatile fuel.

Over the weekend, crews were battling several major fires in the Sierra Nevada and in the Napa area. One fire near Bass Lake, north of Fresno, threatened 450 rural homes. Another, known as the Kyburz Fire, is burning a heavily forested area in El Dorado County east of Sacramento. It has injured four firefighters and temporarily closed Highway 50 and is threatening 150 rural homes.

Temperatures for Monday could start rising toward triple digits and winds could shift and drive flames back south, into new areas of flammable forest. If that happens, “hundreds and hundreds of additional homes” could be threatened, said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for CalFire.

Since January 1, firefighters have responded to some 1,200 more blazes than they typically would face in that period. “As we continue to get deeper into the summer, conditions are only going to be drier,” Berlant said.

Photo courtesy of California Department of Water Resouces

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