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Executive Summary for October 1st

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

Published on Oct. 1, 2015 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

The ‘Water Year’ is Over. And What Does That Mean?

State officials track California’s water supplies within the frame of the so-called “water year,” and a new one begins today. The water year time period of Oct. 1 through Sept. 30 is intended to recognize the fact that California, because of its Mediterranean climate, generally will never see significant rainfall until October begins.

So what can we say about the water year that has just ended? In a word, it was abysmal.

The 2015 water year was the hottest and driest ever recorded in California:

  • The average minimum temperature this winter in the Sierra Nevada was 32.1 degrees Fahrenheit, the first time it was above freezing in 120 years of record keeping, according to the California Climate Tracker.
  • The statewide average temperature was also the warmest ever recorded: 58.4 degrees. That’s more than three degrees warmer than average and almost a full degree warmer than the previous high in 1995-96.
  • On April 1, the statewide snowpack held only 5 percent of the average water content on that date in records dating to 1950. That broke the previous low record of 25 percent, set during the last major drought, in 1977. Snowmelt from the Sierra supplies 30 percent of the state’s fresh water.

“This is a real sobering period we’ve gone through,” Doug Carlson, a spokesman for the California Department of Water Resources, told the Los Angeles Times.

Although a strong El Niño weather pattern is likely to be present this coming winter, officials caution there is no reason to think it will end the drought. This warming of the equatorial Pacific Ocean typically shifts the jet stream further south. As a result, it may mean more rain for Southern California, but it could mean less in Northern California, where building up an annual mountain snowpack is crucial to statewide water supplies.

“Hope for the best,” said Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, “but prepare for the worst.”

Poll: Californians Ready for More Sacrifice Amid Drought

A new poll by the Hoover Institution has found that 54 percent of likely voters back current water conservation requirements. Even more would support sharing groundwater or restricting its use.

Slightly more than half — 53 percent — would even support relaxing environmental laws to build more water storage, including building more desalination plants, capturing stormwater and storing water underground.

“It seems like Californians are willing to throw the entire kitchen sink at the drought and the problem of water supply in the state,” Carson Bruno, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, told Capital Public Radio. “We have significant support for building more dams and reservoirs.”

But voters still don’t like the idea of drinking their own treated wastewater: Only 20 percent in the poll said they would support such water recycling.

For the full poll results, click here.

In a separate poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, 32 percent of residents name drought as the biggest problem facing the state. That’s a lot more than responses than the second most significant problem, jobs and the economy, which was named by only 20 percent of respondents.

A record-high 70 percent of those polled say water supply is a “big problem” in their part of the state. But in most areas of the state, more than half of respondents now feel their neighbors are doing their part to help with the drought, a significant increase from prior polls.

Emergency Drought Barrier Being Dismantled

The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) has begun to demolish a temporary dam built across West False River in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta back in May in an attempt to control seawater intrusion. A media event is being held today so the press can watch the action.

Removal of the barrier, made of metal sheets and large rock, marks the end of a worrisome experiment, the likes of which have not been attempted since the drought of 1977.

The project came in response to reduced freshwater runoff throughout the estuary, caused by the drought, which in turn can cause seawater from San Francisco Bay to reach further into the estuary. This runs the risk of contaminating drinking water diversions from the estuary, which serve 25 million Californians and 3 million acres of farmland.

In an announcement for the media released Wednesday, DWR claimed the temporary barrier met its water quality objectives.

“Monitoring at various stations … showed that the barrier indeed helped improve water quality in the central and south Delta,” the statement said.

Removal of the barrier began in September. The barrier will be breached either today or in the next few days, allowing water to again flow past the barrier into Frank’s Tract. Full removal of rock in the channel will be completed by November 15.

Opponents were concerned the barrier would harm fish migration, disrupt aquatic habitat and increase salinity for farmers operating on islands in the Delta. DWR stated that the barrier actually helped those farmers, but it had nothing to say about effects on fish or habitat.

Top image: Lake Oroville showing Enterprise Bridge looking down the South Fork of the Feather River on Sept. 5, 2014. ( Calif. Dept. of Water Resources)

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