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Executive Summary for September 23rd

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. 23, 2015 Read time Approx. 5 minutes

Ongoing Drought Spawns Complaints of Foul-Tasting Water

Numerous water agencies around California have begun fielding complaints about foul-tasting water over the past week or so. The cause? Shrinking rivers and lakes, warm water temperatures, and resulting algae growth.

“Some people … have described it sort of as stale, old, dirty, musty or moldy,” said Sam Taylor, deputy city manager for the city of Morro Bay. “One person even said it tasted like algae.”

Morro Bay gets much of its water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which is exported by the State Water Project. The Delta provides at least some of the drinking water required by two-thirds of California residents, so it’s no wonder the complaints are growing.

Other gripes come from the city of Sacramento, which pulls water from both the American and Sacramento rivers, which flow into the Delta. The Contra Costa Water District in the Bay Area is also getting lots of complaints. It is now relying on a greater share of water from the Sacramento River, an “emergency” supply it purchased years ago just in case of a prolonged drought like this.

Some customers have also noticed their water has a musty odor.

“Got a glass of tap water and noticed it was kind of … tasted kind of earthy … muddy almost,” said Joe Smith, a Sacramento resident. “I don’t like to taste water like that. I’ve been drinking bottled water ever since.”

Officials at all the affected agencies emphasize the water is perfectly safe to drink. After all, it’s been run through the usual treatment and purification processes. They say the taste and odor changes are temporary and will go away once cooler temperatures and greater river flows return. But that, of course, is not a guarantee in a drought.

In the meantime, they suggest chilling the water before drinking it, running it through a Brita or similar filter, or adding a squeeze of lemon.

“There’s no reason to be alarmed,” said Rhea Serran of the Sacramento Department of Utilities.

One thing the taste complaints portend is a potential future of dramatic change in the Delta. Anyone who follows the news knows that fish species are going extinct in the Delta. But many readers may look at their own lives and say, “So what?”

Well, the fish are dying off, in part, because there isn’t enough freshwater flowing through the Delta, and the water that’s left is low quality. Which is why it tastes funny to people who need to drink it. If the trend continues, the water will taste funny a lot more often, and it could become more difficult to treat to drinking-water standards.

Drought Changing Residential Development Patterns

Homebuilders in California are beginning to view the drought as a permanent shift, and they’re changing what they build as a result.

“We’re definitely moving in a direction in which water is increasingly a consideration in new development,” Adrian Covert, a policy director at the Bay Area Council, told Urban Land, the magazine of the Urban Land Institute.

This is certainly long overdue, as too much new development follows the old pattern: single family homes with front and back lawns. In short, water guzzlers.

The California building market can absorb these changes, the article argues, because it’s a robust market. Demand is enormous, supply is low, so there’s a price cushion to include water efficiency measures.

Where the analysis strays is with the claim that “more homebuilding may even help water conservation efforts.” Yes, new homes will be more water efficient than old ones, thanks to progressive building codes that require low-flow appliances and accommodate innovations such as gray-water recycling.

But let’s be real: Every new home and every new Californian places additional demand on the state’s limited water supplies. It helps if a new dwelling encourages frugal water conservation, but its new residents still require water – every day.

“When they look at new homes, most people want to landscape their front yards with turf,” says Kevin Carson, the New Home Company’s president for Northern California. “But the practice is now changing, and it’s up to us in the industry to make the change desirable and marketable.”

Salmon Fishing Season Off to Slow Start

It’s not really a big surprise, but commercial salmon fishing is not looking good this year. In fact, it’s “one of the worst king salmon seasons in memory,” according to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat newspaper.

The season began in May, and strong winds and warm ocean waters resulted in a poor catch. Undoubtedly, the drought is a factor as well, as poor freshwater reproduction and survival in California’s rivers have depressed the population of available adult fish to catch in the ocean.

Some fishermen “gave up rather than scramble for meager catches of underweight and undersized salmon,” the paper reports.

The total catch through August is only 30 percent of last year’s harvest and equally shy of the forecast for the current season.

Experts believe the warm ocean temperatures are caused by the same atmospheric conditions that created the drought.

One result is that consumers will find it much harder to purchase wild-caught salmon in groceries and restaurants this year. And what they do find is likely to be more expensive.

Many small-scale fishermen, who harvest fish with simple hook-and-line gear, are finding it harder to catch other species to make up for the decline in salmon. A variety of complicated regulatory changes have made it harder for them to operate, and have actually eased the playing field for large commercial bottom-trawling operations, which have a variety of harmful effects on the ocean and its species.

More troubling is what the future holds. Because most salmon are harvested at three years of age, the real consequences of this drought haven’t been felt yet. It’s likely the salmon harvest will be depressed for years to come, which could drive many fishermen out of the business permanently.

“Eventually we’re going to have five trawlers owning the resource,” fisherman Jeremy Dierks says, “when we should have 100 small families.”

Top image: A worker with the California Department of Boating and Waterways sprays herbicide in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in an effort to kill water hyacinth. The invasive water weed, along with harmful algae, explodes in growth during times of drought and low water flow, contributing to poor water quality and other problems. (California Department of Boating and Waterways)

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