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Executive Summary for July 28th

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 28, 2015 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Restoring Meadows to Fight Drought

An unusual restoration effort aims to improve water supply in the Sierra Nevada by cutting down trees.

The work is a partnership between the U.S. Forest Service and Native American tribes, including the North Fork Mono Indians in the mountains of Madera County. A century of aggressive firefighting, largely led by the Forest Service, caused the Sierra forests to become overgrown. This crowds out meadows, which are natural water sponges that collect and feed streams. Also, the trees suck more water out of the ground, reducing runoff.

So the Forest Service and Mono Indians are cutting down thousands of trees to reopen meadows. This has the additional benefit of reducing fire risk, as meadows create natural fire breaks.

“The more water they’re pulling out of the meadow, that’s also less amount of water going down to the valley,” said Ron Goode, tribal chairman of the North Fork Mono.

The project is part of a larger effort by the Forest Service and Sierra Nevada Conservancy to restore meadows throughout the mountain range.

Morro Bay May Restart Desalination Plant

The city of Morro Bay in San Luis Obispo County abandoned its seawater desalination plant in 2000 after signing a contract with the state to purchase water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Now it’s considering reversing that arrangement.

Water diverted from the delta is becoming less reliable, partly because of drought and because of requirements to protect endangered fish species. So Morro Bay, a city of about 10,000 people, is considering restarting the desalination plant it first opened in 1992. The plant can produce drinking water at less than two-thirds of the rate charged by the state for imported water, which is $1.8 million annually.

But the plant needs upgrading, particularly to deal with clogging in the oceanfront wells from which it draws seawater.

City engineer Rob Livick said desalination ultimately could provide as much as one-third of Morro Bay’s water supply, along with wastewater recycling and imported water. But the transition is still about eight years away.

“Even though it’s years out, the planning for a transition like this needs to start happening well in advance,” Livick said.

Is Water Like Raisins, or Oysters?

In another escalation of the legal battles prompted by the drought, the number of lawsuits flying over water cutbacks is increasing. More cases are emerging that argue water-rights curtailments are a “taking” akin to the government seizing private land for a building or highway.

In this analysis, the cases may come down to legal precedents that distinguish raisins from oysters.

A California farmer won a Supreme Court case last year that required him to turn over a share of his raisin crop to stabilize prices. That was ruled a taking, because the raisins were his private property because he spent money and labor to grow them.

But the court was careful to draw a distinction with a 1929 case in which Maryland oyster packers argued the government couldn’t take a portion of their shells after shucking, which the state used for fertilizer and road paving. The court ruled against the packers, stating the oysters never belonged to them in the first place, because they are a natural resource.

That’s why some experts argue California water-rights curtailments are not a taking. Like oysters, water is a natural resource owned by the people at large. Water rights, they assert, are only a permit to make use of the water.

“I think state officials are going to be embroiled in this type of litigation,” said Richard Frank, a law professor at the University of California, Davis.

Photo courtesy of Calif. Dept of Water Resources

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