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Governor expands drought emergency ahead of storms

Issue Date: October 27, 2021
By Christine Souza

The atmospheric river storm that hit the state is welcome, but state water officials predict that many more storms are needed before the state can avoid a third year of drought.

To prepare for the expected dry conditions, last week Gov. Gavin Newsom expanded the drought emergency statewide, adding Imperial, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Francisco and Ventura counties to a previous drought disaster order for 50 counties. The order also asked residents to conserve water.

"As the western U.S. faces a potential third year of drought, it's critical that Californians across the state redouble our efforts to save water in every way possible," Newsom said.

Previous drought disaster proclamations authorized the State Water Resources Control Board to adopt emergency drought regulations to curtail water rights holders. Curtailment orders affect water right holders in the Russian River watershed, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the Scott and Shasta rivers in the Klamath River watershed and Mill and Deer creeks in the Sacramento River watershed.

The state water board stated last week that it is monitoring precipitation and hydrological conditions and would re-evaluate curtailment statuses as appropriate.

California Farm Bureau Senior Counsel Chris Scheuring described the state water board's comments about temporary suspensions of curtailments in some watersheds as "encouraging," adding, "It shows that the board is able to toggle this on and off, and they're not just going to keep everybody locked down forever."

John Krist, chief executive of the Farm Bureau of Ventura County, said of the governor's drought declaration, "from a practical, day-to-day standpoint it reinforces in a political way something we already know quite well: We only got 3-1/2 inches of rain here last year. That's not enough to grow anything."

Krist said the impact of the declaration may not be much in Ventura County in the immediate term, "because our agriculture here is so groundwater dependent. It is more than 85% of the supply for agriculture." However, he said a game changer is the willingness of the state board to curtail water rights in streams that have been so depleted by drought.

The governor's statewide drought declaration asks Californians to do more to conserve water. In July, Newsom asked people to voluntarily reduce water use by 15%. It was reported in August that this achieved only a 5% reduction.

Water conservation is a way of life for farmers and ranchers, Scheuring said, adding that in some cases, a lack of water for the farm "has been life changing."

"I don't think there's any doubt that agriculture has done its part," he said. "Farmers and ranchers also faced curtailments, zero water deliveries and were forced to fallow acreage."

"Next year could be really interesting," Scheuring added. "I had never seen urban water agencies run out of water, but it seems to me if the reservoirs are already at rock bottom and if this year doesn't pan out, I have to believe that we're talking about widespread pain. That is not just agriculture next year. We're talking about human health and safety."

The proclamation authorizes the Governor's Office of Emergency Services to provide assistance and funding under the California Disaster Assistance Act to support the emergency response and delivery of drinking water and water for public health and safety. The declaration also directs state agencies to take further actions to address drought impacts.

The 2021 water year—the second-driest year on record—ended Sept. 30 with near-record low storage in the state's largest reservoirs.

On average, 75% of California's annual precipitation—made up of rain, snow, and hail—falls from November through March, according to the California Department of Water Resources.

State Climatologist Michael Anderson reported that recent storms brought a record-breaking 5.44 inches of rain to Sacramento on Oct. 24. The northern Sierra received some heavy snow, but not enough to end the drought.

"While this is a great start to the water year and much needed, it is a reminder that our wettest months are still ahead and it is crucial that we get rain and snow in those months and throughout the year to really help end the drought," Anderson said.

With the recent heavy rains and landslides in fire-scarred hillsides, DWR reminds that Oct. 23-30 is California Flood Preparedness week. Flooding can occur anywhere throughout the state, and it is important for Californians to assess their flood risk, prepare and practice response plans, and learn from past floods.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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