California’s New Localized Water Controls a Step Forward

With higher levels of rain and snowfall over the winter, California’s water situation has eased in some areas, prompting the state to initiate new water conservation rules, adopted on May 18 and in effect June 1 through January 2017. The regulations give control over water usage to local communities, which means more restrictions in some areas than in others. In Northern California, winter precipitation has filled some reservoirs, while drought conditions persist in Southern California.

The previous rule—enacted in April 2015 by Gov. Jerry Brown, who issued an Executive Order mandating a 25% reduction of urban water usage from 2013 levels over a nine-month period—saw a savings of about 424 billion gallons. That followed a failed year-long effort to achieve a voluntary 20% reduction in water usage, with statewide conservation results averaging between just 7% and 12%.

The State Water Resources Control Board explained that the new approach replaces the percentage reduction-based water conservation standard with a localized approach. The emergency regulation requires that urban water suppliers ensure that at least a three year supply of water would be available to their customers in case of drought conditions. Suppliers that would face shortages under three additional dry years are now required to meet a conservation standard equal to the amount of a shortage. A water agency that projects it would have a 10% supply shortfall, for example, would have a mandatory conservation standard of 10%. The regulation also makes previously passed water-wasting rules permanent, including no hosing of sidewalks, washing cars without a hose nozzle, or watering lawns within 48 hours of measurable rainfall.

“El Nino didn’t save us, but this winter gave us some relief,” Water Board Chair Felicia Marcus said in a statement. “It’s a reprieve though, not a hall pass, for much if not all of California. We need to keep conserving, and work on more efficient practices, like keeping lawns on a water diet or transitioning away from them. We don’t want to cry wolf, but we can’t put our heads in the sand either.”

Will Sarni, director and practice leader of water strategy at Deloitte, agrees with the direction the state is taking on conservation.

While it may appear that restrictions are being eased, which could send the message that things are going back to business as usual, “It’s not business as usual, but local entities are being given more control,” Sarni said. “My view is that water is ultimately a local issue, so providing greater flexibility and decision-making at the local level that aligns with an overall strategy within the state, or nation, makes sense.”

The model of local management actions that roll up to a regional entity have successfully been adopted in other parts of the country, he said, explaining that states do work together. One example is the Delaware River Basin Commission, which is an entity that has a say in how water is managed in the Delaware River. Other examples include the Great Lakes Commission and the Colorado River Compact. “So cooperating on water is actually more common than not,” Sarni said.

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Drought 2

Massive Wildfires Ravage Alberta, Canada

oil sands, Canada
Wildfires have shut down tar sand operations north of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada

Drought conditions in 2015 left Alberta, Canada, parched. Combined with recent winds and high temperatures, this has led to a massive, intense wildfire in the oil city of Fort McMurray, forcing evacuation of more than 80,000 people, and burning about 1,500 homes. Authorities said there have been no known casualties from the blaze, but that fatalities were reported in at least one vehicle crash along the evacuation route.

On Tuesday, the municipality of Wood Buffalo announced mandatory evacuations and closed all southbound routes. Residents fled to safer ground north of the of the area, where they spent Wednesday night in arenas, hockey rinks and oil work camps that often ran short of supplies, Reuters reports.

The fire is now five times its initial size and spreading south, taking it farther away from the massive tar sands area. Shell Nexen, Suncor and other oil sands operators have curtailed or shut down operations to protect pipelines and help evacuate employees and nearby residents, according to the Washington Post.

The wildfires in Canada illustrate a continuing trend of increasingly severe wildfires that in the United States caused a record 10.1 million acres to be burned in 2015, surpassing the previous high of 9.8 million acres in 2006, Mark Crawford reported in last month’s issue of Risk Management. It was the fourth year in the past decade in which more than nine million acres burned. According to the U.S. Forest Service, the 2015 wildfire season was the costliest on record, with more than $2 billion spent fighting fires.

Environmental scientists at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences said in 2013 that rising temperatures could lengthen wildfire seasons, increasing burn areas and smoke from fires.

Meanwhile, current weather reports for Alberta have raised hopes, as the forecast calls for cooler temperatures and possible rain.

Alberta hotspots

2015 Extreme Weather Events in Review

From hurricanes to hail to droughts to tornadoes, 2015 was a busy year for extreme weather events. Drought in California continued to worsen, increasing the risk of wildfires. While record rainfall in Texas and Oklahoma alleviated drought, it caused severe flash flooding in Texas. There have been 25 Category 4-5 northern hemisphere tropical cyclones—the most on record to date, breaking the old record of 18 set in 1997 and 2004.

The Insurance Information Institute reported that insured losses from natural disasters in the United States in just the first half of 2015 totaled $12.6 billion—well above the $11.2 billion average in the first halves of 2000 to 2014.

Interstate Restoration provides a look at 2015 weather events:

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Almost 900,000 Homes at High Risk of Wildfires, CoreLogic Reports

Despite extensive, persistent drought in the western United States, 2014 saw notably low numbers of wildfire incidents, both for total number of fires and acreage burned. According to CoreLogic, there were 63,345 wildfires in 2014, which ranks second only to 2013 as the lowest annual number of wildfires over the past 20 years. In comparison with 2013, which was the second lowest annual total acreage burned in the past 10 years, the 2014 season saw even lower numbers, with 3,587,561 acres burned by wildfires.

More intensive response to small fires and ignitions, increased overwinter snowpack and timely precipitation during wildfire season, and greater efforts to boost public awareness and homeowner mitigation efforts have all contributed to more effective control over wildfires, the company pointed out. But responding agencies, homeowners and insurers should not allow the decline to translate into a sense of security.

“Even though we haven’t seen the type of wildfire activity over the last few years that seemed to be thematic in the 2000s, there have been record setting wildfire events even during the recent periods of overall reduced wildfire numbers,” the report said. “With continuing residential growth in the West, the opportunity for fires to find homes and businesses is going to increase as well. This is why it has never been more important to know where wildfire risk is located and understand the likelihood of it occurring.”

Across the western states, the highest risk areas can be found:

Western US Wildfire Risk

Based on CoreLogic wildfire analysis, there are 897,102 residential properties in the region that are currently located in High or Very High wildfire-risk categories, with a reconstruction value of more than $237 billion. In the Very High risk category alone, there are just over 192,000 residences with a reconstruction value of more than $49 billion. “Taking into consideration the combination of risk factors both inside and outside the property boundary to assess numeric risk score, more than 1.1 million homes in the U.S. with a total reconstruction value of more than $268 billion fall into the highest wildfire risk segment of 81-100. This total is more than five times the number of homes that fall under the Very High risk category,” CoreLogic reported.

The company also broke down the statewide totals for potential exposure to wildfire damage, in reconstruction value per risk category:

CoreLogic: Total Potential Exposure (Reconstruction Value) to Wildfire Damage by Risk Category

Check out the full report for more details on the risks of wildfire damage.