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Executive Summary for December 8th

In this weekly roundup, we analyze key water developments around the West, including Southern California wildfires, the West’s most expensive water pipeline, and the reasons for a prolonged dry spell.

Published on Dec. 8, 2017 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Southern California Fires

If you thought the start of the rainy season in California would be the end of fire season, think again. Fueled by warm, dry weather and high winds, several wildfires are raging across Southern California.

The Thomas Fire began as a 50-acre brush fire outside of Santa Paula in Ventura County on Monday evening, spreading to more than 10,000 acres in four hours, before sweeping through Santa Paula and Ventura, and jumping Highway 101, nearly making it to the Pacific Ocean. By Thursday, it was only 5 percent contained and has burned 96,000 acres.

Several other fires erupted in the following days, including the Rye Fire in Santa Clarita and the Creek Fire, both in Los Angeles County. On Thursday, the Rye Fire was 10 percent contained and had burned 7,000 acres, and the Creek Fire was 5 percent contained and had burned 12,605 acres.

Early Wednesday morning, the Skirball Fire broke out in the Bel-Air neighborhood of Los Angeles, causing evacuations and threatening the J. Paul Getty Center’s renowned art collection, and burning through about 500 acres in the first day.

Dry Weather Lingers

It’s looking like it’s going to be a dry December in California and much of the West Coast as a “quasi-stationary” high pressure system is expected to deliver warm and dry weather for the next few weeks.

UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain explained that these types of weather patterns can be self-reinforcing and have a longer duration that most weather systems. It’s reminiscent of the “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge,” which deflected precipitation around California during the winter of 2013 and parts of the following two years as well – fueling one of the state’s worst droughts.

While the system could mean more drought-inducing weather in the West, the “western ridge” also results in an “eastern trough,” which is expected to bring frigid temperatures to the east coast. And this may have something to do with climate change. “Using climate model simulations, we further found that an increase in extreme temperature dipole days like those we’ve observed in recent years is considerably more likely in a climate with rising greenhouse gas concentrations than in a hypothetical climate without human influence,” wrote Swain.

And for those who remember “The Blob” of warm water in the Pacific Ocean, Swain and fellow researchers have news there, too. “Ultimately, we confirm that unusual ocean temperatures are linked to seasonally persistent West Coast winter ridging similar to the Triple R,” he wrote. “Tropical warmth (in the West Pacific) and coolness (in the East Pacific) are both linked to different patterns of North Pacific winter ridging, and may offer an early warning of seasons with an elevated risk of dry conditions in California.”

Lake Powell Pipeline

One of the West’s fastest growing areas, Utah’s Washington County, is hoping to tap into Lake Powell, 140 miles away, to meet its growing water needs.

Washington County, and it’s biggest city, St. George, are in southwest Utah, 90 miles east of Las Vegas and 40 miles west of Zion National Park. Home now to 165,000 people, the population is expected to hit 400,000 by 2060.

To meet growing demand for water in one of the driest communities in the country, the Washington County Water Conservancy District wants to build a pipeline nearly 150 miles from Lake Powell to a local reservoir. It is “one of the longest and most expensive water pipelines ever proposed in the West,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Under the current plan, it would pipe 86,000 acre-feet of water per day.

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