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Executive Summary for August 7th

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

Published on Aug. 7, 2015 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

California Water Needs to Be More ‘Liquid’. Or Does It?

It is too difficult to trade and transfer water in California due to the state’s outdated water rights system and what some view as a limited plumbing network. Or so the griping goes whenever a drought makes people realize that water doesn’t work like other commodities, such as oil and soybeans.

This article in Bloomberg Business gets most of the facts right about the straits we’re in with the drought. Which is an accomplishment in itself. It argues that moving water around California is too difficult because the law doesn’t allow water to be easily traded and sold like a market commodity, and because it can’t be easily moved from the wet north to the dry south.

There are legal mechanisms for trading and selling water, and it does happen quite a lot. But not enough – or easily enough – to share water rapidly during times of scarcity.

California could be more like Australia, the author suggests, which created a trading market for water rights. Thus, Australian water can now be traded and sold in a day’s time like cattle or lumber. It’s a thought-provoking idea.

But is this truly what California needs? Water in the Golden State was never meant to have the same legal status as a private property right – because California water isn’t private. It is owned by the public, not individuals or corporations, and that is the case so that water can continue to serve the public good, not private profits.

A system like Australia’s might work in California if trading and selling were allowed only within watersheds, not between them. The Bloomberg article fails to consider that California has a quite versatile plumbing system. Water can be diverted out of one watershed, pumped under a mountain range or through an estuary and transported hundreds of miles away. Without tight regulation of the public’s water, the highest bidder could drain a rainforest, say, to grow pomegranates in the desert.

Are Golf Courses Saving Water? Nobody Knows

Golf courses use a lot of water, obviously. So you’d think state and local water officials would make sure to find out if they are heeding the governor’s call to cut water consumption by 25 percent during the drought. Well, they’re not.

The Desert Sun newspaper contacted 50 golf courses in the Palm Springs region and more than two-thirds refused to answer questions about their water consumption. Because many irrigate turf with their own wells, and because groundwater use remains virtually unregulated in the state, there’s no way to hold them to account.

The State Water Resources Control Board has no plans to enforce the 25 percent mandate on golf courses. The reason, officials say, is because they’re already stretched thin policing water agencies.

“We’re not the highway patrol,” said Max Gomberg, a senior environmental scientist with the water board. “We do have limited resources, and we’re going to deploy them where they’re likely to get us the biggest water savings.”

State regulations say golf courses should have information on hand showing how they’re complying with the new rules, in case the water board decides to ask them for it. For now, water officials have no plans to ask for that information, unless they receive complaints about a particular course.

Biologists Fear Another Klamath River Fish Kill

“The risk factors this year are piling up,” said Mike Belchick, biologist for the Yurok Tribe, one of several tribes along the Klamath River, one of California’s most important salmon streams.

Experts fear the Klamath will suffer another massive fish kill like one that occurred in 2002, which later triggered severe commercial and recreational fishing restrictions. Already, spring-run Chinook salmon in the river are infected with a deadly parasite that grows in water which is too warm. And within weeks, the fall-run Chinook will begin moving upstream to spawn. These fish are the largest run in the river and the species that provides much of California’s wild-caught salmon for markets and restaurants.

The solution is simple: The river needs more water. But there isn’t much to go around due to California’s four-year drought. Additional water could be released from Trinity Reservoir upstream, which is operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. But that would mean less water for someone else.

“Water supplies are very limited and the situation is not good,” said Reclamation spokesperson Erin Curtis.

In related Klamath news, the federal Office of Special Counsel is investigating whether the Department of Interior misspent millions of dollars intended for environmental restoration by instead using the money to benefit farmers and ranchers.

Top Image: In this Oct. 1, 2002 photo, Dave Blake looks at dead salmon on the Klamath River near Klamath Glen, Calif. Biologists are worried the 2015 drought is setting up the Klamath River for a repeat of the 2002 fish kill that left tens of thousands of adult salmon dead. Photo by Shaun Walker/The Times-Standard via AP.

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