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Executive Summary for September 17th

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. 17, 2015 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

How Much Rain Will End the Drought?

Amid all the talk about the big El Niño weather phenomenon building this year, you’d think a simple wet winter might end the California drought. Not even close.

The “precipitation deficit” from the four years of drought plaguing California amounts to a big, dark hole. One normal winter won’t be erasing this deficit. It will take more than that. Much more.

“California has been incredibly dry over the last four years, and it will take a great deal of rain and snow for meaningful recovery,” Tom Di Liberto wrote recently on a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) drought blog.

That’s because the drought isn’t measured in precipitation alone, but in groundwater storage levels, reservoir storage levels, soil moisture and plant health.

Looking ahead, Di Liberto says that for the five-year precipitation total to reach merely average levels by fall 2016, “every region of California would need record-breaking amounts of rain.”

The state’s south coast needs 301 percent of normal precipitation; the San Joaquin River basin, 273 percent; and the Sacramento River basin, 212 percent.

Precipitation on this scale could end the drought, but it would also cause a host of other problems. Namely, devastating floods. California hasn’t seen epic flooding since about 1997 and nobody really wants to see that again.

Instead, the ideal drought-killing scenario is probably several wet winters in a row. Nothing record-breaking, just steady wetness.

Fall Means Waterfowl Worries

The arrival of fall months isn’t going to end California’s fire season. But it does bring an additional concern: Providing enough habitat for waterfowl that will begin migrating into and across California along the Pacific Flyway.

Because California retains only about 5 percent of its historic wetlands, waterfowl rely on flooded agricultural fields for winter habitat in California. Rice fields in the Sacramento Valley provide a huge share of this habitat, because the fields are routinely flooded in the fall, after the rice is harvested, to decompose the remaining rice straw. It’s a handy symbiotic relationship.

But the drought means there isn’t enough water to flood all those fields. Which means millions of ducks, geese and shorebirds will have to crowd together in smaller areas. This could cause disease to spread more easily among birds, potentially causing more bird deaths this year.

“Whether we’ll get enough water to put on private rice lands for the migratory birds is a big concern right now, especially if we don’t get much winter rain,” Jon Munger, operations vice president for Montna Farms in Sutter County, told AgAlert, a publication of the California Farm Bureau Federation.

State and federal wildlife refuges in the valley have priority access to water. But it remains to be seen if there’s enough remaining in reservoirs to provide them with the 75 percent water allocation they’ve been promised.

“We’re working very closely with our neighbor farmers and the rice community to determine which fields in which areas will do the birds the most good,” said Dan Frisk, manager of the Sacramento Valley National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

The available habitat is already limited by a reduction in rice planting this year — also caused by the drought. Where rice isn’t planted, the fields won’t be flooded to decompose rice straw.

Farmers are harvesting about 375,000 acres of rice this year, down about 60,000 acres from last year, according to the California Rice Commission. That is the least amount of rice planted since 1991.

The migration is already under way for pintail ducks, one of the earliest species to arrive. And it’s already begun at California’s northern border, at Klamath National Wildlife Refuge.

Drought Shows its Hand in Latest NorCal Fires

California’s extreme dry conditions after four years of drought have made for highly dangerous fire behavior. Even career firefighters say they’ve never seen anything like it.

“The fires are growing in size faster than ever, not only two times, but three and four times faster than normal,” Scott Rohrs, a captain with CalFire, the state firefighting agency, told the San Jose Mercury News during a break in battling the Valley Fire in Lake County.

The death toll from the latest fires is now up to three people, after crews found two bodies in the burn area of the Butte Fire in the Mountain Ranch area of Calaveras County. Other people are still missing, and cadaver dogs are being deployed to locate victims.

Fire crews were reportedly spread thin by the fast-moving fires, and therefore began to act on their own rather than as a team, which exposes firefighters to more danger.

In many of the burn areas, focus must now turn quickly toward recovery. The fires have left huge areas of land unprotected by live vegetation, which could result in severe erosion, mudslides and floods when winter rains arrive. In severe cases, such erosion could send a surge of sediment into important water reservoirs, reducing water storage capacity when it’s needed most.

“There are hillsides where there is nothing left,” Calaveras County Supervisor Chris Wright told the Sacramento Bee. “If El Niño comes, we have to get out there immediately to shore them up, otherwise they will wash right down into the reservoir.”

Top image: This Sept. 3, 2015 photo shows a dried-out lawn at Los Angeles City Hall, with a sign explaining that irrigation has been shut off due to the ongoing drought. (Nick Ut, Associated Press)

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