Gavin Newsom Declares Drought Emergency In Most Of California’s Counties; May Have Broad Impact

gavin newsom
CA Gov. Gavin Newsom via Facebook

“We’re living with a water system designed for a world that no longer exists,” said California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday. He said that the snow pack had melted so precipitously that “it didn’t actually run off into reservoirs and rivers, but it seeped into the parched earth.” The result was 500,000 acre feet of water lost. According to the governor, that’s enough to keep 1 million households in water for a year.

Accordingly, Newsom today significantly expanded his April 21 drought emergency proclamation to include Klamath River, Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and Tulare Lake Watershed counties where accelerated action is needed to protect public health, safety and the environment. In total, 41 of the state’s 58 counties are now under a drought state of emergency. Those regions represent 30% of the state’s approximately 40 million residents, though drought declarations there could have a much broader impact.

Newsom didn’t issue mandatory drought conservation measures which could force urban Californians to curtail outdoor usage. But those measures are “are on the table” if there is another dry winter, said California’s Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot, per the Sacramento Bee.

Crowfoot warned that Newsom’s action could lead to orders from the state water board curtailing access for farmers to water from rivers that feed into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a crucial part of the California water delivery network. He said water has to flow through the delta to the ocean to flush salinity out of its system.

Climate change-induced early warm temperatures and extremely dry soils have further depleted the expected runoff water from the Sierra-Cascade snowpack, most of which is at 9% of normal for this date. That’s resulted in historic and unanticipated reductions in the amount of water flowing to major reservoirs, especially in Klamath River, Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and Tulare Lake Watershed counties.

The state’s largest reservoir, Shasta, is, even before summer, at 56% of average, according to state numbers.

Just last week, the National Resources Defense Council called on the state to release more water from the Shasta Dam so that “this year’s population of endangered winter run chinook salmon eggs and fry from cooking to death in too-hot river temperatures” due to less water.

“If the State Water Board fails to act,” continued the NRDC, “and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation operates Shasta Dam as it plans to this year, about 80% of endangered winter run salmon will die from temperature-dependent mortality alone.” If the board does adopt the NRDC proposal, the Bureau of Reclamation would not be permitted to drain Shasta Dam to deliver water to its irrigation contractors.

That sets up another battle in the war between the state’s environmentalists and farmers. It’s a clash that Newsom — who is facing a recall election this year — had sought to avoid by issuing his previous, lesser drought declaration.

Those conflicts are taking place in the second year of an already historic drought, after one of the driest years on record in 2020, in the aftermath of California’s worst fire season ever recorded and with 2021’s wildfires already dwarfing those seen at this point in 2020.

The governor did note that Californians have curtailed their average water use by 14% since the start of the state’s previous, five-year drought in 2012.

“With the reality of climate change abundantly clear in California, we’re taking urgent action to address acute water supply shortfalls in northern and central California while also building our water resilience to safeguard communities in the decades ahead,” said Governor Newsom. “We’re working with local officials and other partners to protect public health and safety and the environment, and call on all Californians to help meet this challenge by stepping up their efforts to save water.”

In April, the governor signed an emergency proclamation directing state agencies to take immediate action to bolster drought resilience across the state and declaring a State of Emergency in Mendocino and Sonoma counties due to severe drought conditions in the Russian River Watershed.

Notably absent are any Southern California counties where most of the state’s voters live and from which much of the state’s residential water thirst emanates. Newsom did, however, foreshadow an emergency order impacting more of the state’s residents saying, “We are likely…to increase the total number of counties.” He gave no timetable for that decision.

Monday’s drought emergency proclamation adds the following 39 counties to Newsom’s previous action: Del Norte, Humboldt, Siskiyou, Trinity, Alameda, Alpine, Amador, Butte, Calaveras, Colusa, Contra Costa, El Dorado, Fresno, Glenn, Kern, Kings, Lake, Lassen, Madera, Mariposa, Merced, Modoc, Napa, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, Sacramento, San Benito, San Joaquin, Shasta, Sierra, Solano, Stanislaus, Sutter, Tehama, Tulare, Tuolumne, Yolo and Yuba counties. Additionally, the proclamation provides new authority for the existing drought emergency announced on April 21 for Mendocino and Sonoma counties.

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