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Executive Summary for October 6th

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. 6, 2015 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Database on U.S. Dam Safety to Be Available Again

For more than a decade, a giant federal safety database on American dams has been locked way under the premise of protecting national security. It was seen by many as yet another paranoid reaction to the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Now that database will be available again, thanks to the efforts of the journalist group Investigative Reporters and Editors and its data-analysis spinoff, the National Institute for Computer Assisted Reporting.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has federal inspection authority over all large dams in the nation, has kept the dam data locked away all these years. It is a vast trove of inspection reports, safety violations and maintenance statements on large dams that are crucial to water supply and flood control all across America.

Without access to the data, the public and the media have been unable to learn which dams are at risk from natural decay, earthquakes and maintenance neglect. Knowing this information is crucial for many reasons, the foremost being public safety. Many of these large dams are located near enough to major population areas that a sudden failure could kill thousands of people and cause billions of dollars in economic damage.

Without ready access to the database, clear information about dam safety has been difficult to come by. It required a lengthy Freedom of Information Act request, in which crucial information was often withheld or redacted for questionable reasons.

Yes, there certainly is a risk that some of these dams will become the target of terrorist attacks. But concealing the safety maintenance data did little or nothing to prevent this. Anyone with a pair of eyes and common sense can see that a large dam is a potential threat to people. You don’t need to plow through federal records to figure that out.

What the records can tell us is which dams are in the worst shape, what their maintenance and safety concerns are, and who is responsible for correcting them. It’s that kind of information, revealed with help from informed media, that can make people safer and protect important infrastructure to prepare for future droughts and floods.

Saving Water … With Paper Plates?

It might be one of the most dramatic water-saving measures to emerge from California’s drought so far: Restaurants in the city of Fort Bragg, on the coast north of San Francisco, are being ordered to serve meals with disposable dishware and cutlery to save water.

That means fancy restaurants must serve wine in plastic cups and slap their locally caught wild salmon down onto paper plates.

Fort Bragg has been in a so-called “Stage 3” water emergency ever since the normally robust Noyo River shrank so low that seawater began to creep upstream into the city’s water intakes.

The emergency order, approved on September 30, requires homeowners and businesses to reduce their water consumption by 30 percent compared to the same time last year.

But the measure has created so much anxiety among Fort Bragg restaurant owners that the City Council may consider relaxing the requirements when it meets next week.

“You might be able to cut a filet mignon with a plastic knife, but you are not going to cut a New York,” Jim Hurst, co-owner of Silvers at the Wharf and Point Noyo Restaurant and Bar, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Can Cold Cash Produce Water Savings?

By now we’re all familiar with consumer rebate programs to encourage water conservation. Homeowners and businesses can tap all kinds of rebates to help pay for everything from frugal toilets to commercial icemakers.

Now the state of Utah is trying something a little different. It’s offering cash payments to large water users who consume less. Projects could include temporary fallowing or deficit irrigation of crops, reuse of industrial water, recycling of municipal water that lowers consumptive use, and reductions in municipal landscape irrigation.

The state is offering an initial total of $1.5 million for such projects, but officials say they’re prepared to offer more if the program is popular. Funding is available to municipal, industrial and agricultural water users in 10 counties that rely on water diversions from the Colorado River.

“The idea is to distribute water conservation cash and see if it results in benefits to the Colorado River system with benefits to the levels of Lake Powell,” said Robert King, the Utah Division of Water Resources’ interstate streams engineer.

Top image: Oroville Dam, photographed during better times, when water was plentiful. The dam is the tallest in the nation and a vital part of the California State Water Project. A federal database on dam safety will soon become available again, making it easier for the public and media to monitor the safety of such crucial facilities. (

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