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Too Little Too Late: California Rain Unlikely to Alleviate Worsening Drought

Much of California is expected to receive rain over coming days from a series of storms lined up over the Pacific. However, it is unlikely to make a significant contribution to the overall drought situation. California is dependent on the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada to provide water to fill the rivers and reservoirs that we rely on throughout our long, dry summers. The current snowpack remains in a dismal state, as the graph below shows:

The graph shows the amount of water held in the snowpack in the central Sierra. The black line shows what we receive in an average year. The pink line shows the current year—less than 40 percent of normal and equal to the 1976-77 winter, considered one of the driest winters ever. It is also important to note the green line, which shows that the snowpack in 2012-13 was also far below average. And the 2011-12 winter was also disappointing, dramatically compounding this year’s deficit.

Next week, the Department of Water Resources and others will conduct the all-important April 1 snowpack survey. By April 1 of each year, California water managers generally have enough confidence in predictions of how the year’s water supply to determine how much water to allocate to the many water uses in the state, including farms, cities and fish and wildlife. The current series of storms will bump the snowpack up before the survey, but nobody expects a significant improvement to the drought outlook.

Despite hopes for significant rain and snow from the series of Pacific storms, we have seen numerous signs of a worsening situation this week, including those below. American Rivers is working in many ways across California to better prepare for the next drought, which is sure to come sooner than anyone would like. For example, we are trying to restore access for salmon into the upper reaches of rivers in the Sierra Nevada to escape the warmer temperatures in the Central Valley. We are working with water and power agencies in the San Joaquin and Sacramento River basins, as well as key federal and state agencies such as the State Water Board, to improve flows where necessary and restore river and floodplain habitat to help recover salmon populations.

Sacramento’s Water Supply Could Soon Be High and Dry

If the American River—which is the primary source of water for the City of Sacramento—drops another foot and a half below current levels, the pump station that feeds the city water system will be sucking air. As a result, the water department will go before the Sacramento City Council on April 8 to ask for $3 million for rental and installation of submersible pumps pull water out of the river.

Emergency Convoy Trucking Salmon Hatchlings Downriver Toward Pacific

California wildlife officials launched a massive trucking operation on Tuesday to move 30 million Sacramento River salmon toward the sea to help the fish avoid harmful river conditions caused by drought, such as warmer temperatures and greater concentrations of predators. Three climate-controlled tanker trucks transported about 400,000 juvenile salmon from the Coleman National Fish Hatchery near Red Bluff to floating pens in the Sacramento River near Rio Vista, bypassing some 180 miles of the Sacramento River. From there, the three-inch long fish will still have to swim 70 miles to pass through the Golden Gate out to the Pacific. More than 200 truck trips are expected over the next three months from state and federal hatcheries in the Central Valley. The scale of the operation is unprecedented in the state. The $1.4 billion commercial and recreational salmon fishery in California supports more than 22,000 jobs.

Folsom Lake in Northern California looks especially dry in this photo taken Jan. 9. Photo credit: Robert Couse-Baker/ Flickr

Silicon Valley Water Customers Face 20 Percent Cut

The Santa Clara Valley Water District alerted cities and companies last week that it was reducing allocations of treated drinking water by 20 percent through the end of the year, the San Jose Mercury News reported, affecting more than 1.5 million people in seven cities. The cities, including San Jose, will now be forced to make up for the lost water by pumping more groundwater, urging residents to conserve or using other water sources.

Severe GroundwaterOoverdraft Looms Large in San Joaquin Valley

“The 800-pound gorilla in the Kings County water debate is back — what to do about the groundwater overdraft problem that is depleting underground aquifers with no end in sight," reports the Hanford Sentinel. “That unanswered question was front-and-center at the Kings County Water Commission meeting Monday night in Hanford. In some ways, it was a replay of discussion in 2010, after the major 2006-09 drought. Recent satellite measurements indicate that, from 2005 to 2010, the Central Valley lost the equivalent of Nevada’s Lake Mead in overdraft. The state’s response was to direct agencies like Kings River Conservation District to form regional groundwater management plans.” 

Some Water Planners Unable to Keep Up With Drought

Recently, three water agencies in the Santa Barbara area—Santa Barbara, Montecito and Solvang—joined forces to place a bid on “surplus” State Water from purveyors in central California to augment their water supplies, according to the Santa Barbara Independent. The three agencies offered what seemed at the time to be an excessive amount: $1,600 an acre-foot. Their bid was not at all competitive. The winning bid weighed in at a staggering $2,200 per acre-foot, and the three thirsty water districts went away empty handed. The Montecito water district managers have warned about “going dry by July.”

The record breaking drought has taken a tremendous toll on the state of California. Below is a stunning photo essay compiled by Earthjustice,

[blackoutgallery id="318413"]

Related Content:

California Drought Forces Fisheries to Truck Salmon Smolts to Sea

Organic Standards Lowered for Livestock in Drought-Ridden California

Is California Headed For a Century-Long Drought?

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By Sue Branford and Thais Borges

Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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