Archive for August, 2014

This Was The First Year It Ever Went To Zero

via The Guardian

via The Guardian

Yes, it really is that bad. California is shriveling up before our eyes. Staggering under the worst drought in history, the state is confronting the possibility that it might just plain run out of water. Cities and counties around the state are imposing draconian penalties on water wasters  – don’t water that brown lawn, don’t wash that filthy car – and the state is scrambling desperately to divert precious water from where there is some to be found to where there is none. Governor Brown just signed legislation putting a $7.545 billion water bond before the voters. There’s an impressively long and (mirabile dictu) bipartisan list of supporters of the bill ranging from environmental groups through agricultural and construction organizations to the state chamber of commerce. But all that broad support still leaves unanswered the central question of how to divide a disastrously diminishing water supply around a state as populous and diverse as California. Who is more deserving? Almond farmers or vintners? The Los Angeles megacity or the small towns in the Sierra foothills where the ground is literally sinking because wells have run dry?

In the shadow of those snow-bereft mountains, California farmers are emptying their wells of ground water – the aquatic equivalent to eating your seed corn. When that water is gone it’s as good as gone forever: replenishing aquifers is a job of decades and centuries. Jeffrey Sutton of a Sacramento area canal authority is struggling with the fact that this year for the first time, some of its customers will receive no water. Nothing. Zip. Nada. “This was the first year it ever went to zero,” he says. “You can’t allocate water that’s not there.”

If you crane your neck, you can look back 500 years or more to find the Anasazi people who disappeared from the southwestern US. Decades of relentless drought did them in. That was a disaster for them. What to do with the tens of millions of present day Californians? What happens when a whole state finally runs dry? No one sees any easing of the current drought coming anytime soon. And there’s really no question that global warming will only make things worse.

California has always had a parlous relationship with water. There’s a road much loved by sports car drivers called Mulholland Drive that hugs the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains. It’s named after William Mulholland, the man who so famously brought water to a sleepy little desert town called Los Angeles. If you want a terrific history of the politics behind that feat, watch Roman Polanski’s brilliant 1974 film Chinatown which is based on Mulholland’s audacious accomplishment. It’s a compelling illustration of just how ugly the politics around water has always been in the Golden State. It doesn’t promise to get any prettier.

Update: In an editorial in today’s Los Angeles Times Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, warns bluntly that the state has “only enough water in storage to get through the next 12 to 18 months, and that’s it.”

Prosecutors to PG&E: We Are Not Amused

via Wikimedia

via Wikimedia

Back in 2010 a Pacific Gas &Electric gas pipeline exploded in San Bruno, California. The blast killed eight people, injured 66 and turned several blocks of the suburb just south of San Francisco into what looked like Baghdad after the shock-and-awe campaign. The disaster ignited a brief flurry of interest in pipeline safety but the national attention soon drifted on to other matters. San Bruno city officials, however, have kept the heat on the utility which provides gas and electricity to most of  Northern California.

On July 29 a bevy of prosecutors, including the U.S. Attorney, the California Attorney General, the San Mateo County DA, and the FBI announced an indictment charging PG&E with obstructing a National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the blast as well as knowingly and willfully violating the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act. According to the indictment, the utility provided the National Transportation Safety Board with a copy of its draft policy regarding pipeline threats, then withdrew it and replaced it with another policy claiming the first was a draft released in error. In fact, the indictment alleges, PG&E had been operating under the purportedly unapproved draft for years, meaning it did not properly assess the risks to pipelines running through urban and residential areas. According to the indictment, the utility ignored or failed to investigate threats to its gas pipelines, kept inaccurate and incomplete records, did not investigate the seriousness of threats to pipelines when they were identified, and failed to assess the threats posed by over-pressurized pipelines.

All in all it’s not a pretty bill of goods, and San Bruno is spitting mad. And the city’s anger isn’t just directed at PG&E. According to city officials, PG&E essentially colluded with state regulators. The mayor is accusing the  chairman the California Public Utilities Commission of receiving “confidential, non-public information from PG&E regarding its internal deliberations and financial conditions outside of the CPUC public hearing process” and demanded his immediate removal from proceedings related to the blast. The city accuses PUC and PG&E officials of being in regular email contact despite commission rules forbidding private conversations between parties to official actions and regulators.

Pipeline safety generally has an enforcement problem. Congress has consistently starved the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration of adequate funding. According to Rep. Jackie Speier whose district includes San Bruno, “The industry has a lock on PHMSA. It has a lock on Congress. And the public’s interest gets dramatically watered down.” In fact, the head of the PHMSA, Jeffrey Wiese, offered up an unusually frank confession about the state of his agency in a speech last fall. According to Wiese, the regulatory process is “kind of dying.”

Perhaps the grand jury that returned the indictment against PG&E can stave off the demise.

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