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Executive Summary for September 3rd

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

Published on Sep. 3, 2015 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Running Out of Water: Tallying the Pain

The California Department of Water Resources released data this week on the number of reported water outages throughout the state. Four years deep into the drought, according to the data, there are 2,548 households that have reported they have run out of water, as of August 26.

These cases are primarily rural homeowners who supply their own water, or who depend on very small water systems that serve 15 or fewer customers. The data includes homeowners whose wells have dried up, or who are unable to continue diverting water from a stream.

The number may actually be lower, as water officials have verified outages in only 1,737 cases. But the total number of outages has grown steadily since DWR began tracking these cases in July 2014, indicating the situation is worsening as the drought continues.

The worst region is Tulare County, where well failures in the town of East Porterville have been well documented in the media.

A somewhat surprising data point is that virtually all of the reported outages (2,443) are in the state’s inland regions, which for these purposes encompasses the Central Valley and the Sierra Nevada. This is surprising because most of the state’s population is in coastal regions and Southern California urban areas, so you’d expect to see at least proportional numbers of outages in the most populated areas.

But it may indicate that more rural homes in inland regions depend on their own water supply, or on very small water suppliers. In short, the water infrastructure may be less developed in these areas, requiring very rural homeowners to be more self-sufficient. It’s also a glaring indication, of course, that these areas are climatically drier than other parts of the state and therefore among the first to lose water supply during a severe drought.

It’s also worth noting the report is not all-inclusive. As the Chico Enterprise-Record reports: “Not everyone wants to broadcast their problems.” So there may actually be many more homeowners doing without water.

“We know (the surveys and reporting) will not capture everything,” said Paul Gosselin, director of the Butte County Department of Water and Resource Conservation.

Water Bottling Company Faces Fine for Illegal Diversions

The State Water Resources Control Board is proposing a $224,875 fine against Sugar Pine Spring Water LP for allegedly ignoring an order to stop diverting water from springs in Tuolumne County. The alleged violations occurred in 2014 and 2015.

The company’s water rights allow water diversions from Cottonwood Spring, Deadwood Spring, Marco Spring and Polo Spring, all tributaries of the Tuolumne River upstream of Don Pedro Reservoir.

According to the Union Democrat newspaper, in years past the company has sold water from the forest springs to companies such as Calistoga and Arrowhead, which are owned by global bottling giant Nestlé.

Before 2014, Sugar Pine Spring Water diverted about 69 acre-feet annually through pipelines to a bulk water truck filling station, from where it was then hauled to bottling companies.

An investigation by the state water board’s Division of Water Rights found Fahey allegedly continued to divert water for 170 days under his two permits, for a total of 21.95 acre-feet in 2014 and 2015, after being notified no water was available under his water rights, water board staff said.

Treating Oil Field Wastewater by Distillation

The practice of using oilfield (or fracking) wastewater to irrigate crops in the San Joaquin Valley has come under fire recently, with a number of observers suggesting this may create toxic food.

Now, a potential solution has emerged. A new partnership plans to test low-temperature distillation technology to recycle that wastewater from oil production in the Bakersfield area. Thermal Purification Technologies Limited North America and California Clearwater Resources say their project is in the final design stages. The goal is to produce 20,000 barrels per day of treated water, which would then be clean enough to be reused for some purposes.

That’s not a huge production capacity. It works out to 840,000 gallons per day, or just 2.5 acre-feet.

It is also unclear what the treated water can be used for, because the companies don’t specify just how clean it will be.

But it’s a step forward from the present common practice associated with fracking, in which wastewater is injected back underground, potentially contaminating groundwater aquifers with oil and fracking chemicals. And, at a minimum, the water may prove useful for farm use that does not involve direct human consumption, such as irrigating forage crops for cattle.

Top photo: In this July 1, 2015 photo, Tree Dunlap stands behind the family’s dry well in their community of Okieville, on the outskirts of Tulare, Calif. Since the well dried up, the Dunlap family has been forced to find water elsewhere, including applying for programs that provide bottled water. (Gregory Bull, Associated Press)

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