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Executive Summary for September 18th

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. 18, 2015 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Steep Water Rate Hikes on the Way in Many Communities

The city of San Diego, one of the largest retail water providers in California, plans to boost water rates 17 percent next year.

The California Water Service Co. also is seeking to impose a 17 percent rate increase on its customers in Bakersfield.

The Zone 7 Water Agency, which serves a large swath of the eastern San Francisco Bay Area, also plans a rate increase, although the amount hasn’t been specified yet.

These are just some of the biggies in a long stream of agencies that are about to increase water rates. In almost all cases, the drought is a significant factor in the rate increases. In a few cases, the agencies also need more money to replace aging infrastructure and because they have already put off rate increases for too long.

In San Diego’s case, additional revenue is needed because customers have been so diligent about conserving water during the drought. That means the city is collecting less money to operate its water system, even though its operating costs are essentially fixed.

The same is true for the Zone 7 Water Agency.

“If you produce water, you have to have someone maintaining the dams, the pipes and the controls even if you sell less water,” said Zone 7 spokesman Marty Grimes.

Additional rate increases are planned in San Diego in subsequent years because the city plans to start buying expensive desalinated seawater from a new treatment plant in Carlsbad. Over four years, rate increases are expected to total 36 percent.

In Bakersfield, city officials are objecting to the rate increase proposed by Cal Water. At a meeting this week, the City Council voted to extend Cal Water’s franchise to serve a major portion of the city for only two years, as opposed to the usual 50 years. The council also scheduled a public hearing to allow residents to vent about the rate increase.

But because Cal Water is a privately owned utility, its rate increase must be approved by the California Public Utilities Commission, and there’s little city officials can do about it. The utility says the additional money is needed to repair crumbling infrastructure and install new water meters.

Dry Wells Linked to Historic Gold Mining Activity

More than 200 water wells have gone dry during the drought in Tuolumne County, a foothill region that saw lots of gold-mining activity in California’s early days. County officials say mapping efforts reveal a direct correlation between failed drinking water wells and the location of historic hard-rock mines.

“You can see how these failed wells are following these mining claims,” county Environmental Health Director Rob Kostlivy told the Union-Democrat Newspaper. “There is a possibility now that these wells can be connected and the old mines themselves could be acting as water storage that’s been in effect for 100-plus years.”

Hard-rock miners followed veins of quartz in search of gold. These veins may have been the same features that once isolated water held in voids of fractured rock. When mining opened up the voids, it allowed underground water to flow more freely. Historic records tell of miners pumping huge volumes of water out of their mines to access gold.

A similar phenomenon has been reported in Nevada County, to the north, and in Colorado.

The severe drought seems to be depleting those veins of their stored water, perhaps for the first time since the Gold Rush.

Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey are planning to conduct studies in Tuolumne County in the coming months, Kostlivy said. Assistance for residents with dry wells is available through a state-funded program administered by the county. As of earlier this week, more than 100 emergency water tanks had been installed throughout the county.

Package of Bills Would Regulate Marijuana Grows

A package of bills has been sent to Gov. Jerry Brown for his signature that would increase regulation of marijuana growing — legal and otherwise — to prevent harm to California water supplies and water quality.

The bills would make a variety of important changes to marijuana regulation to prevent that crop from operating in the shadows, thereby avoiding some of the environmental harm it causes.

One of the key bills, SB 643, would officially identify marijuana as an agricultural product under state law, which would subject it to a variety of other state regulations. This has never been done before, because marijuana continues to be seen as a controlled substance under various regulations.

A companion bill, AB 243, directs the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, State Water Resources Control Board and other agencies to develop a system to regulate marijuana cultivation. It appropriates $10 million to begin that process, and authorizes the agencies to increase the cost of stream diversion permits, and assess other fees as needed, in order to fund ongoing regulation.

“Entire rivers are running dry as rogue marijuana grows have expanded, diverting millions of gallons of water illegally, and as the fourth year of this historic drought sets in,” state Sen. Mark McGuire, who represents the North Coast region, a hotbed of marijuana cultivation, said in a statement. He is the primary author of SB 643. “The impacts have been horrendous and the drought has had a devastating effect, especially on the North Coast.”

Top image: Cars are flooded in the backyard of an apartment caused by a water main break in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles on Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015. Numerous water agencies around California are poised to increase water rates to pay for infrastructure maintenance and revenue shortfalls caused by the drought. (Nick Ut, Associated Press)

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