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Executive Summary for October 20th

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. 20, 2015 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Drought Could Kill 20 percent of California Trees

That’s the upper end of a new estimate by Greg Asner of the Carnegie Institute for Science, who has been surveying California forests by airplane using laser measuring devices. That would amount to 120 million trees – a staggering number.

Asner estimates there are 585 million to 1.6 billion trees in the state’s forests – and apologizes for not being more precise. An accurate census, he told the Los Angeles Times, has never been conducted. But 120 million represents between 7 and 20 percent of the total. Under normal circumstances, forests lose 1 to 1.5 percent of their trees annually.

“At what point will the forest change into something else? We don’t know,” Asner says. “We don’t know when the lack of rain will lead to runaway conditions where the forests are beyond repair.”

Asner’s survey is considered more precise than a recent U.S. Forest Service estimate, which put the potential mortality at 12 million trees. That’s only 10 percent of Asner’s upper limit.

The Forest Service survey was also done from aircraft, but it was a simple visual estimate performed by counting brown trees. Asner’s methods actually measure trees in stress by assessing their moisture content.

“This gives us an opportunity to ask new questions and gives us a chance to reshape the problems in front of us,” said Chad English, science program officer at the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, which funded the research.

Decline of the state’s forests means loss of clean water and erosion control, recreation and – potentially – jobs. As trees die, decompose or burn, they also release carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.

State Urges Californians to Prep for Floods

It might seem unusual amid the grip of the worst drought in recorded history. But California officials on Monday staged a press conference, with downtown Los Angeles as a backdrop, urging residents to prepare for possible flooding this winter due to an unusually strong El Niño weather condition.

“What we see is record sea surface temperatures … which is translating into some extreme weather conditions and the high probability for higher precipitation, especially in Southern California,” Bill Croyle, director of statewide emergency preparedness at the California Department of Water Resources, said at the news conference.

Concurrently, the state launched a new website with tips to help homeowners and businesses prepare for heavy rainfall and potential flooding.

As if to reinforce the risk, the search continued for a man who went missing over the weekend in mudslides that struck many areas of Southern California. It’s suspected that Richard Harvell, 67, was swept away in a mudslide when heavy rain hit his home in Boron, a town in the desert east of Ridgecrest.

Even so, officials are urging residents to remain vigilant about water conservation.

“We need to stay on top of conserving water even though it’s raining like heck in California,” Croyle said. “Even though we might end up this wet season with full reservoirs and rivers, it doesn’t mean we’re going to end the drought. It’s going to take us a number of years with above-average rainfall to get back to normal water conditions.”

Growth on the Water Beat?

The usually insightful Circle of Blue has a piece out today entitled “The Growth of the Water Beat.” It goes on to state: “Water is now frequently an A1 story, with public interest to match.”

I won’t argue with that statement. But I do take issue with the claim in the title (which is, frankly, unsupported by the narrative that follows). The water beat at news organizations is not growing. Yes, more media are publishing and broadcasting articles about water, but there has been no discernible growth in reporters who are water-beat specialists.

I say this as someone who covered water almost exclusively for a decade (at the Sacramento Bee newspaper). When I started there, I reckon there must have been 12 reporters in my immediate circulation area I could point to as having a certain well-developed expertise on water, and who covered it regularly on their beat, which, in most cases, was a more broadly defined environmental news beat. Even so, I considered them fellow water reporters.

Today, there are perhaps four reporters similarly situated. The decline is due to reduced spending at news organizations and a myopic view of the importance of water coverage. That hasn’t changed, despite the drought.

Thankfully, author Brett Walton concludes with some skepticism of his own: “The true test for water, however, will be one of endurance. Does the coverage reflect a flavor-of-the-day calculation? Does it tail off when rainier days arrive? Or will newsrooms give reporters the resources to probe and sift, to make the connections between science, policy and civic response that flow through the water beat?”

The drought is just the latest crisis in California that media organizations have ramped up to cover in more depth temporarily. When it’s over, or surpassed by the next crisis, reporters will get pulled off water coverage. Come this winter, that could likely be flooding and other weather-related disasters. When that happens, the nuances, complexities and politics of water management will continue to go largely uncovered.

Covering water requires more than an episodic devotion of media resources. It requires long-term dedication and a long view about California’s most important issues, one of which is certainly water. It means hiring subject-matter experts and making a commitment to keep them focused, because the water story is never going away.

Top image: Dying trees fill the landscape just off Highway 180 near Snowline Lodge in March 2015 near Dunlap. Dead and dying trees in the Sierra and Sequoia National Forests and private lands, as a result of drought-exacerbated beetle infestations, are causing problems among mountain residents. (Eric Paul Zamora, Fresno Bee)

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