Sunday, April 19

American Dust Bowl

A tractor kicks up dust in Los Banos, California 
Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images via Bloomberg Business


The most striking quote I've come across in recent days about drought in the USA was from a Kansas farmer; he said that he hadn't seen dirt storms as in earlier years of the state's drought. (See report link below.)  

Dirt storms? That's Dust Bowl talk.  Why hadn't I heard about these storms? Why hadn't I heard about the drought in Kansas?

Droughts come and go, and given the huge land mass of the United States of America and its vast climate differences there's usually always a drought going on somewhere in this country. 
I've been learning American droughts are so routine, one of them has to be a whopper to get its 4 minutes of fame on the nightly national news.

But the world has changed for the U.S. news media and state governments. This happened on the day California Governor Jerry Brown stood on mountain grass that should have been covered in 5 feet of snow and announced historic mandatory water restrictions for the state. 

That was April 1, ironically, but it was no April Fool's joke.  

Only then did the seriousness of the drought, covering little more than 30 percent of the contiguous United States, to one degree or another, really sink in.  

All traditional methods of water management and water use are now up for review and revision. The problem is that the worst water problems are not due to drought or high temperatures; those have just exacerbated and exposed longstanding water problems that involve state and city legislatures and thousands of districts, municipalities, agencies, and special interest groups. And many of the problems are so complicated they seem to defy solution, which is why they've been kicked down the road to the place called Someday.

Someday is now here and we're not ready. Here, links and a few quotes I grabbed from a couple handfuls of new reports on drought across the USA. Together I think they convey the urgency of Americans making water issues a top priority. Because, for once, tomorrow can't wait. 

Washington State Drought Emergency Declarations Expand - Columbia Basin Herald 4/17

How Oregon's drought got started, and what it means for you - Oregon Live, 3/31:
This winter hasn't been all that dry. But it's been hot. Most regions of Oregon received normal or near-normal precipitation this winter. Normally, that would set the state up for a summer of healthy streamflows and fully stocked reservoirs. However, warm weather during the winter months meant most of that precipitation fell as rain. Mountains that normally would be piled high with snow remained bare. Without snowpack to melt throughout the summer, farmers and ranchers in Oregon's rain-starved regions are wondering how they'll irrigate their fields and pastures, while forest managers are bracing for a tough wildfire season. [...]

Feds eye Michigan for possible drought, but forecasters skeptical - Michigan  Live 4/16. As  you can see there's some good news for the latest seasonal drought projections across the USA:

But drill down into the Michigan Live report to realize there's already cause for concern in Michigan. And see this January 31, 2013 investigatory (text)  report from the state's channel WBEZ91.5, for a crash course on the complexity of water issues in the USA, What’s causing the record low levels in Lake Michigan?

Dry Wells Plague California as Drought Has Water Tables Plunging - Bloomberg Business 4/17:
“The conditions are like a third-world country,” said Andrew Lockman, a manager at the Office of Emergency Services in Tulare County, in the heart of the state’s agricultural Central Valley about 175 miles (282 kilometers) north of Los Angeles.

Drought conditions expand across large section of nation’s crop region  AP via Iowa Farmer Today 4/17:
[...] Kansas farmer Clay Scott said that this year, he hasn’t seen the dirt storms he experienced in recent years. But he noted that the area is entering its fourth growing season in drought. “There is a desperate need for rain right now,” he said. “If we catch a good rain here shortly, we’ll have a nice wheat crop here in southwest Kansas compared to last couple of years.” [...]

Drought disaster declaration for part of Nevada, Utah, Idaho - AP 4/14

Spring drought brings challenges to Minnesota -  Echo Press 4/17
"With virtually every corner of the state experiencing some level of drought conditions, residents in Douglas County are coping with the abnormally dry weather."

Outcomes of drought begin to appear in region -  North  Dakota - Grand Forks Herald 4/16

[...] In a 2013 survey by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), state water managers from around the country said they expect freshwater shortages to continue into the next decade, even under what they described as "average" conditions. If those conditions change, whether because of rapid population growth, unusually low snowfall or rainfall, or accelerated economic growth, the situation could worsen.[...]

"To preserve what water there is, farmers have been changing the way they irrigate. In the Salinas Valley, drip systems that deliver just what's needed are now widely used on fields where water once routinely flooded down the furrows. Strawberry growers go even further, covering the earth in plastic, partly to slow evaporation. With water scarce farmers insist they are not wasting it, they are using it carefully to feed the rest of us."

Report: Drought not having big impact on state's economy  AP 4/15:
[...] California’s drought is not likely to have a significant effect on the state’s economy or budget despite leading to cutbacks on farms, a nonpartisan fiscal analyst said Tuesday.

Declining agriculture production and residential water use in dry years don’t drag down the broader state economy, the Legislative Analyst’s Office report said.

But the report does say that a persistent drought, which Gov. Jerry Brown warns might be the new normal in California, is a long-term risk to the state economy if it slows home construction or leads to higher food prices. [...]

The Western Drought Begins To Affect Housing Starts  - National Center for Business Journalism 4/17:
[...] Earlier this month, our Rian Bosse reported on all the ways the drought is hurting the California economy. Now, Bloomberg says the economic impact is beginning to affect the housing market. It reports that the construction of new homes in the West fell for a third straight month in Monday. It dropped by 19 percent, year over year, to an annual rate of 201,000 for the month.

David Crowe, the chief economist at the National Association of Home Builders in Washington, told Bloomberg that uncertainty surrounding local water policy and the ability to obtain water connections for new homes or apartment buildings could be holding some builders back.

Crowe says builders are seeing the situation in the West as something more than temporary. “This is a new regime that says it’s going to be harder to obtain additional water usage,” he says.

Builders need water for all kinds of things, from dampening down the dust from the construction process, to mixing concrete, and general clean up. They also need to water in new lawns and landscaping, and send water through the plumbing once a home is complete.[...]
Unemployment down in state; agricultural areas may show drought impact - Chico Enterprise-Record, April 17:
California’s jobless rate fell to 6.5 percent in March, the lowest it’s been in nearly seven years, the California Employment Development Department reported Friday. However the effects of the drought on agricultural California appear to be clear from the numbers as well. Seven counties in the San Joaquin Valley had double-digit unemployment, as did Sutter, Yuba and Colusa counties in the Sacramento Valley. Colusa, at 20.4 percent, was the worst in the state.

Butte County’s jobless rate was 7.5, which meant 7,600 people were without work. Glenn County’s rate was 9.5 percent, with 1,200 jobless, and Tehama County unemployment was 8.5 percent, with 2,100 people out of work.
A survey of California businesses found the state had 15.9 million nonfarm jobs in March. It marks a 3.1 percent increase, or gain of roughly 482,000 jobs, since March of last year.

According to the agency, seven categories added jobs over the month including the fields of construction; manufacturing; trade, transportation and utilities; professional and business services; educational and health services; other services; and government.  Professional and business services posted the largest increase of 16,900 jobs.

The overall number of people unemployed was down in March and stands at 1.2 million. However, that doesn’t include the number of Californians who have stopped looking for work, or people working part-time who would rather be working full-time.

The Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan think tank, issued an analysis in December saying that when those groups are factored in, the state’s unemployment rate is likely 15.4 percent.


Now. What about El Nino?  Hopes have been raised, as you can see from the April 15 Washington Post headline: Pacific may be primed for powerful El Nino. Yet drill down into the long article to see the emphasis is on "may" -- same as it was last year when the predicted strong appearance fizzled  or was misread by weather scientists. But even if it's a monster El Nino in the winter of 2016, here's the bottom line for California, from the CBS affiliate in Sacramento:

"Since 2011, many regions of the state are at a rainfall deficit of more than one year's worth of water, with some going above two years."

That means it would take years of consecutive monster El Nino appearances to get the state out of its water deficit, although the deluges could rescue some other U.S. states from their comparatively marginal deficits.

Even the occurrence of such an unlikely train of weather events wouldn't solve California's longstanding water problems, which get worse by the decade because of ongoing population growth in the state. Right now parts of California are Boom Town; "Eight of the 10 fastest-moving housing markets are there."  (H/T John Batchelor Show/Gene Marks at the Washington Post.)  Some of those markets are in a dry part of the state, namely Los Angeles.

And What of "Climate Change?"

The Pacific Ocean has been slowing global warming down. That could be about to change -- Washington Post, April 14.

Of course, of course, the emphasis is on the weasel word "could."   Maybe. Might. Perhaps. 

If these global warmists are jerking us around again, they don't realize how dangerous it is to keep crying, "Wolf!"  But I'll play the fool in this instance because if the Pacific is lifting the lid, then the Western USA is really headed for a megadrought of indefinite duration, although when would be a matter of conjecture.  Just something to keep in mind. 

I will close by making the Associated Press and CBS News really happy and featuring their entire report from April 18. I know they don't consider this 'fair use' but not only is the report the latest news on the revised water restrictions ordered by Gov. Brown, it's also a clear window on the complexities of 'fair' water use in a drought. That makes it an important report.  Although this is a first for my blog, I've included little inset pictures of extra features in the report such as videos and a photo album of California's drought; this, in hopes you'll visit the CBS site for a look-see.

April 18, 2015, 6:45 PM
California changes some drought restrictions

SACRAMENTO -- Restrictions on California water districts will now be based on summer months to better account for outdoor watering, according to a new plan released Saturday by the State Water Resources Control Board.

On April 1, Brown declared a drought emergency and ordered a 25 percent cutback in statewide urban water use. The local water agencies expected to make the steepest cuts called the state's demands unreasonable and unfair.

CBS affiliate KOVR-TV in Sacramento reported the conservation standard for urban suppliers originally called on water districts to cut back based on September 2014 statistics, with four possible tiers of reduction.

California drought crisis

Regulators are facing backlash as they try to figure out how to distribute the burden of conservation.

It's not feasible to expect coastal cities with few lawns like San Francisco to make cuts on the same magnitude as resort towns in the desert.

But the state also risks flaring up regional tensions surrounding how water is delivered in California.

"All Californians need to step up more and prepare as if it won't rain or snow much next year either," said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board.

Homes and businesses use less than a fifth of the water Californians withdraw from surface and groundwater supplies, but state officials say conservation is the best way to maximize water supplies to prepare for future dry years.

Since 2011, many regions of the state are at a rainfall deficit of more than one year's worth of water, with some going above two years, according to KOVR-TV.

Could the coming El Nino end West Coast drought?

The new rules will now be based on the months of July, August and September, a dry time of the year when most outdoor watering happens. The number of tiers has doubled to eight, ranging anywhere from 8 percent to 36 percent in cuts.

The adjusted regulations are meant to reward communities that already started making cutbacks after the drought started.

However, some communities are expected to save even more water under the new proposal, including San Bernardino, which must scale back 32 percent compared with an earlier demand of 25 percent.

Others have easier targets: Los Angeles and San Diego must cut 16 percent instead of 20. But the updated regulations still didn't address some of the most common complaints from agencies.

Communities that slashed water consumption before the drought are grouped together with those who didn't. Water savings can be limited by factors unrelated to good conservation, including hotter weather, fiercer winds and economic growth.

Severe drought forcing Calif. farmers to adapt

Some critics say regulators are ignoring local efforts to wean off the state water system and prepare for droughts, such as paying for desalination plants and local reservoirs.

"There are parts of the state that really haven't done much of anything," said John Helminski, assistant director of San Diego public utilities.

He said San Diego residents are being asked to endure new restrictions even though they have been paying higher rates to become more self-reliant for water, such as an upcoming project to purify sewage into drinking water.

"The fact that we are being dinged additional costs doesn't seem fair," Helminski said.

The board on Saturday said these concerns are valid but more appropriate for permanent conservation goals.

"All of those projects are in the long-term interests of the communities, but what we are talking about here is a short-term emergency," said Marcus, the chairwoman.

In some wealthy areas, California's drought goes unnoticed

Local water departments that fail to conserve or reduce water use face possible fines and state intervention, which could include raising water rates and adding new water restrictions. State officials said they will start monitoring for compliance this summer but will remain focused on helping local agencies rather than penalizing them.

"Fines don't create water," said Caren Trgovcich, the board's chief deputy director.

Some communities that aren't importing water and aren't facing shortages, particularly on the North Coast, can petition to make just a 4 percent cut.

The board on Saturday also allowed water departments to exclude deliveries to farms when determining water cutbacks. Marcus acknowledged that the move would likely exacerbate the perception that agriculture, which uses four times as much as urban users, is exempt from drought cuts.

Farms have endured cutbacks from government reservoir systems, and many are likely to be ordered to stop diverting water from streams and rivers they have legal rights to take as early as next week.

The draft rules also prohibit the watering of ornamental turf on street medians.

The regulations are expected to be approved by the board in early May and take effect in June. The public comment period on the proposal runs through Wednesday.



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