News that doesn't receive the necessary attention.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

More than 4 inches of rain and snow in Sierra Nevada in May 2015, "off the charts" gain for Mono Lake-Sacramento Bee

5/29/15, "Much of Sierra sees big rainfall, snow totals in May," Sacramento Bee,

For a lone, lovely month, it hasn’t much felt like a drought in the Sierra Nevada. Rain 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.

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.

As 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 data show.

“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.”

The wet, 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.

State 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.
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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.

Michelle 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.

At 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.”

Despite 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.

But the 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.

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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 booming population. 

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 settlement.

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.
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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. 
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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 keep planting. 

“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 Wuertz uncertain....

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 farming. 

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 opportunity.

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 cotton. 

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 them....

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 profit.
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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 American West. 

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 behind them....

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 initiatives....

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 artificially cheap. 

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 insurance program. 

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.
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“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


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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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I find it interesting that this article makes not mention of the fact that the Wuertz family pioneered drip irrigation for cotton in Arizona and even formed a company to help other farmers benefit from that water efficient approach to irrigation. See: http://www.azdripsystems.com/o...

Cotton acres have been declining steadily in Arizona and California due to the cost of water. In the 1990s USDA data shows there was almost 2 million acres of cotton in those two states, but in 2014 there was less than 400,000 acres of cotton. And essentially all of that cotton is of a very high quality that is in high demand around the world - the surplus of cotton is for lower qualities. For years where there is water, cotton allows farmers to make use of their fallow land and maintain crop diversity.

Finally, cotton is mistaken as a "thirsty" crop because its heat and drought tolerance allow it be grown in water scare areas. For more evidence of this statement, see the white paper at: http://www.cottonleads.org/cot...

In the spirit of full disclosure, I am an employee of Cotton Incorporated, but the accuracy above statements are well documented."

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Great article. I read Cadillac Desert and everyone is right. This author and Mark Reisner. We just returned from Yuma and it was disgusting to see all the green crops down there and in the Imperial Valley. It's a full fledged desert. It is totally inappropriate.

Thank you for this excellent series. I look forward to the rest of the articles."


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I'm the daughter of an Eagle Scout (fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Mets) and a Beauty Queen.