5/29/15, "Much of Sierra sees big rainfall, snow totals in May," Sacramento Bee,
and snow have fallen week after week during May in the high country.
Temperatures have dropped below normal most days, reducing the amount of
water lost to evaporation. Southern California has received an unusual
amount of rain, too: San Diego has seen 2.4 inches of precipitation in
May; it normally gets 0.21 inches.For a lone, lovely month, it hasn’t much felt like a drought in the Sierra Nevada.
Climatologists said the wet weather has not put much of a dent in California’s drought,
now in its fourth year. Yet some experts said the recent precipitation
could offer a promising, albeit uncertain view, of what’s in store for
winter, even raising the prospect of a rain-filled El Niño season.
of Friday, more than 4 inches of water had fallen in parts of the
Sierra Nevada, some of it as rain, some as snow. That’s more than five
times the normal amount in some places. It has rained more during May in
some parts of the Sierra than it did during the entire winter, federal
“We are kind of floored,” said Arya Degenhardt,
spokeswoman for the Mono Lake Committee, an environmental group in Lee
Vining. “As of right now, precipitation – it’s at 4 inches (for May).
It’s kind of off the charts. The lake has risen over 2 inches. That is
huge for us, especially after four years of drought.”
cold weather extended into Nevada and parts of Southern California. But
the Central Valley and North Coast remained mostly dry, leaving many in
Sacramento oblivious to the storms happening up the hill.
officials and climate experts said the rain will help fill depleted
mountain reservoirs and hydrate thirsty high country trees and plants.
But after such a dour winter, the rain is more a respite than a rescue
from the historic drought.
“The net effect in the larger scheme of
things is to simply slow down the drought juggernaut,” said Kelly
Redmond, deputy director and regional climatologist for the federal
government’s Western Regional Climate Center in Reno.
Redmond and other climatologists watched the weather patterns in May with an eye toward what they might portend for next winter. The
rain and cold weather, they said, may have been partially caused by an
El Niño weather pattern.
The term “El Niño” generally refers to a period
in which the surface waters of the Pacific Ocean are warmer than usual
near the equator. The temperature shift disrupts normal weather
patterns, often bringing heavier-than-usual precipitation to California.
The drenching rains in the winters of 1982-83 and 1997-98, accompanied
by mudslides and other woes, were attributed to El Niño. The last El Niño, in the winter of 2009-10, brought only slightly above-average precipitation.
Several climatologists expressed hope that an El Niño weather pattern could settle in and bring more rain.
Bill Patzert, climate analyst at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in
Pasadena, is among those who are optimistic about the coming winter. He
said the destructive storms that hit Oklahoma and Texas this week were
related to El Niño, and he expects significant precipitation in
California this winter.
“It’s pretty big in terms of size and
intensity. This thing looks as promising as anything I’ve seen in the
last ... 18 years,” he said.
But Patzert and others cautioned that
the upcoming El Niño is likely to strike mainly in the southern half of
the state, missing the major mountain ranges and reservoirs that act as
the primary source of California’s vast freshwater delivery network.
That would limit El Niño’s effectiveness as a drought remedy. “Where we really want the snowpack and the really steady winter rains is Northern California,” Patzert said.
Mead, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento,
agreed that an El Niño is forming, but she said it probably will not
pack much of a punch. “It’s going to increase our probabilities (of
rain) up to 70 percent, but it’s not guaranteeing it will be enough rain
to end the drought,” she said.
Prognostications aside, many in
the Sierra Nevada are simply thrilled that so much precipitation fell on
their lakes, streams and trees.
“We’ll take all the rain we can get,” said Robert Peek, a ranger at Bodie State Historic Park in Mono County, where total precipitation has been measured at more than 6 inches so far in May.
Mono Lake, the drought has raised the specter of dust storms and harm
to wildlife. The lake's streams typically provide billions of gallons of
drinking water each year to Los Angeles. “Between the rain that falls
on the lake itself and the actual snow in the snowpack ... it’s really
good,” Degenhardt said.
Even so, it will take a lot more rain to
bring Mono Lake, a huge, shallow body of water east of Yosemite that
provides critical habitat for millions of migratory birds, back to
normal levels. The lake has lost more than 5 feet of depth since the
drought began, Degenhardt said.
And, as May turns into June, the dry summer will arrive, leaving little chance of precipitation until winter. “May
helps a lot, but in the bigger picture, we also want to keep
perspective,” Degenhardt said. “People need to conserve water.”
the rain, nine of the state’s 12 key reservoirs saw water levels drop
in May, including Folsom Lake and Lake Shasta, state figures show. The
losses were greatest in Northern California reservoirs.
rain was enough to stay the hand of the State Water Resources Control
Board, which regulates the state’s complex water rights system. In early
April, the board warned senior water rights holders – those with the
oldest rights and first dibs to water – that they could see those rights
curtailed. As of Friday, the board still hadn’t issued curtailments to
senior water rights holders.
“We want to make sure we don’t cut it
off sooner than we need to,” board chief deputy director Caren
Trgovcich said after the first batch of May storms." via Free Rep.
Arizona cotton and the US Farm Bill are fueling the west's water crisis:
5/30/15, "Holy Crop. How federal dollars are financing the water crisis in the West," projects.propublica.org,
"State Route 87, the thin
band of pavement that approaches the mostly shuttered town of Coolidge,
Ariz., cuts through some of the least hospitable land in the country.
The valley of red and brown sand is interrupted occasionally by rock and
saguaro cactus. It’s not unusual for summer temperatures to top 116
degrees. And there is almost no water; this part of Arizona receives
less than nine inches of rainfall each year.
Then Route 87 tacks left and the dead landscape springs to life.
Barren roadside is replaced by thousands of acres of cotton fields,
their bright, leafy green stalks and white, puffy bolls in neat rows
that unravel for miles. It’s a vision of bounty where it would be least
expected. Step into the hip-high cotton shrubs, with the soft,
water-soaked dirt giving way beneath your boot soles, the bees buzzing
in your ears, the pungent odor of the plants in your nostrils, and you
might as well be in Georgia.
How bad is the water crisis? And what should we be doing to fix
it? ProPublica has asked some of the best thinkers on water management
issues to weigh in.
Getting plants to grow in the Sonoran Desert is made possible by
importing billions of gallons of water each year. Cotton is one of the
thirstiest crops in existence, and each acre cultivated here demands six
times as much water as lettuce, 60 percent more than wheat. That
precious liquid is pulled from a nearby federal reservoir, siphoned from
beleaguered underground aquifers and pumped in from the Colorado River
hundreds of miles away. Greg Wuertz has been farming cotton on these
fields since 1981, and before him, his father and grandfather did the
same. His family is part of Arizona’s agricultural royalty. His father
was a board member of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District
for nearly two decades. Wuertz has served as president of several of the
most important cotton organizations in the state.
But what was once a breathtaking accomplishment — raising cotton
in a desert — has become something that Wuertz pursues with a twinge of
doubt chipping at his conscience. Demand and prices for cotton have
plummeted, and he knows no one really needs what he supplies. More
importantly, he understands that cotton comes at enormous environmental
expense, a price the American West may no longer be able to afford.
Wuertz could plant any number of crops that use far less water
than cotton and fill grocery store shelves from Maine to Minnesota. But
along with hundreds of farmers across Arizona, he has kept planting his
fields with cotton instead. He says he has done it out of habit, pride,
practicality, and even a self-deprecating sense that he wouldn’t be good
at anything else. But in truth, one reason outweighs all the others:
The federal government has long offered him so many financial incentives
to do it that he can’t afford not to. “Some years all of what you made came from the government,” Wuertz
said. “Your bank would finance your farming operation…because they
knew the support was guaranteed. They wouldn’t finance wheat, or
alfalfa. Cotton was always dependable, it would always work.”
The water shortages that have brought California, Arizona and
other Western states to the edge of an environmental cliff have been
attributed to a historic climate event — a dry spell that experts worry
could be the worst in 1,000 years. But an examination by ProPublica
shows that the scarcity of water is as much a man-made crisis as a
natural one, the result of decades of missteps and misapprehensions by
governments and businesses as they have faced surging demand driven by a
The federal subsidies that prop up cotton farming in Arizona are
just one of myriad ways that policymakers have refused, or been slow to
reshape laws to reflect the West’s changing circumstances. Provisions in
early–20th-century water-use laws that not only permit but also compel
farmers and others to use more water than they need are another. “Use It
or Lose It” is the cynical catch phrase for one of those policies. Western leaders also have flinched repeatedly when staring down
the insatiable, unstoppable force of urban sprawl. Las Vegas authorities
have spent billions of dollars inventing new ways to bring water to
their ever-expanding city, yet could not cite a single development
permit they had ever denied because of concerns about water.
Instead, when faced with a dwindling water supply, state and
federal officials have again and again relied on human ingenuity to
engineer a way out of making hard choices about using less water. But
the engineering that made settling the West possible may have reached
the bounds of its potential. Dams and their reservoirs leak or lose
billions of gallons of water to evaporation. The colossal Navajo
Generating Station, which burns 22,000 tons of coal a day in large part
to push water hundreds of miles across Arizona, is among the nation’s
biggest greenhouse gas polluters, contributing to the very climate
change that is exacerbating the drought.
Few crises have been more emphatically and presciently predicted.
Almost 150 years ago, John Wesley Powell, the geologist and explorer,
traveled the Colorado River in an effort to gauge America’s chances for
developing its arid western half. His report to Congress reached a
chastening conclusion: There wasn’t enough water to support significant
For more than a century, Americans have defied Powell’s words,
constructing 20 of the nation’s largest cities and a vibrant economy
that, among other bounties, provides an astonishing proportion of the
country’s fruit and vegetables.
For almost as long, the policies that shaped the West have
struggled to match the region’s ambitions — endless growth, new
industry, fertile farming and plentiful power — to its water supply.
Today, as the Colorado River enters its 15th year of drought, the
nation’s largest reservoirs have been diminished to relative puddles.
Power plants that depend on dams along the river face shortages and
shutdowns that could send water and electricity prices skyrocketing.
Many of the region’s farmers have been forced to fallow fields.
The still-blooming cotton farms of Arizona are emblematic of the
reluctance to make choices that seem obvious. The Wuertz family has
received government checks just for putting cottonseeds in the ground
and more checks when the price of cotton fell. They have benefited from
cheap loans for cotton production that don’t have to be fully repaid if
the market slumps. Most recently, the government has covered almost the
entire premium on their cotton crop insurance, guaranteeing they’ll be
financially protected even when natural conditions — like drought — keep
them from producing a good harvest.
The payments, part of the U.S. Farm Bill, are a legacy of Dust
Bowl-era programs that live on today at the urging of the national
cotton lobby and the insurance industry. Similar subsidies support corn,
rice, wheat and, indirectly, alfalfa — all of which also use lots of
water. But in Arizona one of the driest states in the nation, it’s
cotton that has received the most federal aid, tipping the balance on
farmers’ decisions about what to plant.
Over the last 20 years, Arizona’s farmers have collected more than
$1.1 billion in cotton subsidies, nine times more than the amount paid
out for the next highest subsidized crop. In California, where cotton
also gets more support than most other crops, farmers received more than
$3 billion in cotton aid.
Cotton growers say the subsidies don’t make them rich but help
bridge the worst years of losses and keep their businesses going. And
because the money is such a sure thing, they have little choice but to
“If you’re sitting on land and thinking of shifting, cotton is
safer,” said Daniel Pearson, a senior fellow of trade policy studies at
the Cato Institute. Growing cotton in the desert, long term, may be doomed. In
Arizona, the price for cotton has been in decline, and with it the
overall planting of the crop. But when the price spikes, as it did
dramatically in 2010, the growers get busy. One thing has yet to change:
the government’s willingness to back and protect those still wanting to
be cotton farmers.
For years, the federal support came through subsidies and price
protection cash put directly in the farmer’s pocket. In Arizona, those
payments could total tens of millions of dollars a year. Today, the
government’s aid comes chiefly in the form of insurance subsidies —
reliable and robust protections against losses that many farmers and
their lobbyists hoped would be every bit as effective as cold cash. And
so every year more than 100,000 acres of cotton still get planted,
making the crop the second-most popular in the state.
Thus, at a time when farmers in Arizona, California and other
Western states might otherwise adapt to a water-short world, federal
farm subsidies are helping preserve a system in which the thirstiest
crops are grown in some of the driest places.
“The subsidies are distorting water usage throughout the West and
providing an incentive to use more water than would be used in an open
market,” said Bruce Babbitt, Arizona’s former governor and a former U.S.
Secretary of the Interior.
One night last October, in the weary twilight of the cotton
harvest, Greg Wuertz nestled his white Chevy pickup by the mailboxes at
the head of his street. Opening a small aluminum door, he removed an
envelope containing a $30,000 insurance payment on a policy paid for by
the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Easy money, to be sure, but it left
Cotton might never have been grown in Arizona without some form of
government enticement. During the Civil War, a Union blockade impounded
the Southern states’ global exports. As Europe turned to new strains of
cotton grown in Egypt, Arizona’s settlers, knowing the Pima Indians had
long planted cotton there, thought they could replicate hot and dry
North African conditions and compete. Townships reportedly offered cash
to farmers willing to pioneer commercial-scale crops, according to a
local historical account. Arizona’s first cotton mogul was said to be a
blacksmith who abandoned his trade to take the subsidies and try
Arizona, at the time, was short on people and long on land. It was
also rich in freshwater aquifers, groundwater that then seemed ample
enough to irrigate vast fields and turn the desert into an oasis.
When the United States first went to war in Europe, the demand for
cotton surged. The fibers were used to reinforce truck tires and canvas
airplane wings. The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company bought thousands
of farm acres and built a factory west of Phoenix, where a city by the
name of Goodyear still stands. Farmers flocked to the state in search of
In 1929, Wuertz’s grandfather packed the family’s belongings into
their old Buick and drove down from South Dakota. He strung up tents on
160 acres, six miles outside Coolidge, and planted his first rows of
cotton in the months before the Great Depression. By the 1950s, cotton
farming had been woven into the state’s identity; Arizona schoolchildren
learned about the “Five C’s”: cattle, copper, citrus, climate and
Draw a sagging line today from San Francisco to Washington, D.C.,
and every state below it grows cotton. The United States is the world’s
largest exporter, with 17 states producing some eight billion pounds of
cotton each year, most of which gets shipped off to Asia and Europe.
California and Arizona are able to produce more than twice as much
cotton on each acre they plant as can cotton powerhouses like Texas and
Georgia because they irrigate their fields more often. But that also
means that they use two to four times as much water per acre.
From almost the beginning, Arizona’s cotton farmers understood
they were withdrawing from a finite account. “There was a sense the
water would run out,” said Wuertz’s father, Howard, now 89. “You could
tell there was going to be an end to it, even in the 1950s.”
They’ve made it last, in large part, because as the aquifers
beneath their feet were depleted, the state brought in new supplies,
mainly from the Colorado River.
Today, Wuertz’s irrigated cotton plants grow to about 4 feet tall,
and are planted in even rows, about 3 feet center to center, extending
for miles across furrowed fields....
He gets about one-quarter of his water from the Central Arizona
Project, or CAP, the system of canals that brings water from the
Colorado River, some 230 miles away. The rest comes from a federally
built reservoir nearby called San Carlos Lake, which, with the drought,
has been diminished to little more than a bed of mud....
Every 10 days, he explains, he releases his ditch gates and floods
the furrows, using an irrigation technique hundreds of years old, until
the roots of his plants are submerged ankle deep. If he were to do it
all at once, the water Wuertz spends to produce one acre of cotton would
stand 4 feet deep. The ditches flow with hundreds of millions of
gallons of water every year.
For the last third of a century, Wuertz was supplied prodigious
amounts of water, largely because Arizona was pushing its farmers to use
as much as they could. The state’s run on water began in the 1970s,
when Arizona planned its mega canal in order to lay claim to its full
share of water from the Colorado River. The canal would bring more water
than the state needed at the time, ultimately supplying future urban
expansion as its cities and economy grew. But in the short term, Arizona
had to justify the canal’s $4.4 billion federally subsidized
construction cost by demonstrating to Congress that it had a plan to put
all that water to use right away....
Land use statistics show that acres of irrigated farmland in Arizona
have decreased over the past few decades, and since 1985 they’ve dropped
by more than half in the area around Phoenix. The Wuertz family sold a
chunk of its fields to home developers in 2009.
But the patterns of agricultural water use make clear that it’s
not just how many acres of land are planted there, but what is grown on
Today, China, the world’s largest cotton
producer, has enough cotton in warehouses to stop farming for a year.
And Texas, the U.S.’s largest producer, harvests enough to cover more
than one third of U.S. exports alone, relying largely on natural
rainfall, not irrigation, to do it....
This underscores questions about whether continuing to grow these
water-hogging crops at their current levels is in the public interest,
and whether such an important pillar of U.S. economic policy as the Farm
Bill should continue to champion them....
First established as a New Deal program to rescue farmers during the
Great Depression, today’s unwieldy version of the U.S. Farm Bill wraps
everything from food stamps to sugar imports into one 357-page, nearly
$1 trillion law.
The measure allots about $130 billion over 10 years to protect
farmers against price drops, bad weather and bad luck and to insure them
against virtually any scenario that gets in the way of turning a
No American law has more influence on what, where and when farmers
decide to plant. And by extension, no federal policy has a greater
ability to directly influence how water resources are consumed in the
Until this year, the bill doled out direct subsidies for a full
menu of crops. Every farmer planting commodities, including those
planting cotton, got $40,000 just for signing up.
Then there are the steeply discounted business loans, which have a
measurable impact on what farmers decide to plant. In many cases, to be
eligible for these subsidies one year, a farmer has to have previously
planted the crop — a basic component of the bill’s architecture that
gives farmers an incentive to maintain “base” levels of acreage. In an
analysis, the Congressional Budget Office found that the subsidies don’t
just maintain the status quo, they also foster more planting, and more
water use. The USDA’s marketing loans alone, for example, led to a 10
percent increase in the amount of cotton farmers planted — compared to
2.5 percent increase in the amount of wheat, and a 1.5 percent increase
in the amount of soybeans produced — in part because the subsidies not
only make cotton a safer bet, they also make it more competitive against
alternative crops. Banks lend cotton growers money they wouldn’t lend
for other crops, largely because they know the government will stand
The Farm Bill has been used in the past to steer environmental
policy. It provides for withholding money, for example, from farms that
would contribute to soil erosion or the destruction of wetlands.....
The Farm Bill contains $56 billion for conservation, funding an
effort to encourage farmers to reduce their water consumption by using
more-modern equipment as well as measures meant to conserve land.
Another section of the bill is aimed at saving energy. But the law’s
farming incentives run counter to its far more modest water conservation
The Farm Bill’s authors have sometimes factored in environmental
concerns in specific places and tailored incentives to affect them,
Hoefner said. But when it comes to cotton, the bill does not consider
the related water use, and it does not distinguish between the places
where it is grown.
Instead, the money corresponds roughly to the amount
of cotton harvested; Arizona, which ranks in the middle in terms of its
cotton production, also ranks 10th among the 17 states that receive
cotton aid. California, which ranked third for overall cotton production
in 2013, also ranks third in subsidies over the last 20 years according
to data collected by the Environmental Working Group. It’s in those
places that the incentives created by the subsidies are most in conflict
with the government’s aid to conserve water.
“Trying to get USDA to break down the silos is difficult,” Hoefner noted.
The Congressional Budget Office attacked this disconnect in 2006,
urging the USDA to stop supporting agricultural products that act to
“impede the transfer of water resources to higher value uses,” and
“encourage the use of water.” Analysts advised the USDA to enhance its
conservation programs, align its subsidies with those conservation
efforts, and stop paying for infrastructure that makes water
Every six years or so Congress has the opportunity to revisit its
Farm Bill policies and update the bill. When Congress reauthorized it in
2014, however, lawmakers changed, but did not retreat in their support
for cotton farming in the Southwest, despite growing awareness of the
persistent water crisis in the Colorado River basin. Instead, legislators allowed the cotton industry to write its own
future. Faced with international trade pressures and allegations that
subsidies — like payments triggered by price drops — were distorting the
market, U.S. cotton trade associations lobbied to ramp up the USDA’s
Rather than paying direct subsidies to cotton farmers, starting
this year the USDA will use taxpayer dollars to buy farmers additional
crop insurance. Policies that once covered up to around 70 percent of
farmers’ losses can now be supplemented with new coverage covering up to
90 percent, cushioning the shallowest of losses. The lucrative
marketing loan program that serves as a sort of price guarantee also
remains in place....
“There is enough water in the West. There isn’t any pressing need for
more water, period,” Babbitt said. “There are all kinds of agriculture
efficiencies that have not been put into place.”...
In the end, Wuertz said he doesn’t know how to grow other plants as
well as he knows cotton....His identity is wrapped up in those prickly
bolls out in his fields.
“When I quit cotton all of that goes away. Ninety percent of my
life is gone. It doesn’t mean a damn thing,” he said. “I’m just not
ready to do that yet. And it’s not to say I won’t get there.”" via Hockey Schtick
Among comments is one from a member of the cotton industry who notes the Wuertz family pioneered drip irrigation in Arizona for cotton farmers:
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