Governor declares drought emergency in California

Gov. Jerry Brown’s move increases water transfers and eases state and federal water limits, but situation is still dire

The dry lake bed at Folsom Lake near Folsom, Calif.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP

It’s official: California is in a drought emergency.

Gov. Jerry Brown made the long-awaited emergency declaration Friday morning in San Francisco, a day after legislators and hundreds of farmers from parched districts in Northern California and the Central Valley rallied on the steps of the Capitol in Sacramento.

"We are in an unprecedented, very serious situation," Brown said.

The governor asked Californians to reduce their water consumption by 20 percent.

"We're heading for a train crash," said Mario Santoyo, executive director of the California Latino Water Coalition that organized the Sacramento rally Thursday. "We've got to do everything we can to try to be prepared for it, to use every possible tool we have. Those tools don't become available until the governor signs a declaration."

California is in the third year of a severe drought that has forced cities to cut water use and may leave farmers no choice but to stop planting some crops.

Tricia Blattler, executive director of the Tulare County Farm Bureau, said farmers in her county have been hard hit this year. A December cold front threatened citrus crops and farmers had to use more water to create a protective coat of frost on trees.

"That will affect the amount of water they have," Blattler said. "We are extremely dry. We have not had any rain during the winter period ... It's a very, very difficult year."

Snow pack in the mountains is at 20 percent of the average for this time of year, leaving reservoirs that store water runoff from the mountains at less than 50 percent capacity. Severe drought conditions are hitting 90 percent of the state.

California lawmakers began urging Brown last month to declare a drought emergency, and he appointed a committee to review conditions, but he has made it clear that calling it an emergency doesn’t solve the problem.

An emergency declaration can result in more water transfers and easing of state and federal regulations that limit water supplies but, more significantly, it sends a powerful message and raises awareness statewide, encouraging conservation even in areas that have water in storage.

Cities, counties take action

The Sacramento City Council this week passed the toughest water restrictions in the city’s history: Reduce usage 20 to 30 percent or face a fine of $1,000.

Mendocino County declared its own emergency, asking for cuts in usage of 25 to 50 percent and stating that a family of four can’t use more than 150 gallons a day in some areas.

“We have many wells that have gone dry; we have springs that have stopped running,” said Mendocino County Supervisor Carre Brown.

Willits, a Mendocino County town with a population of roughly 5,000, has a 60-day water supply.

Brown, the supervisor, said she’s “very pleased” the governor made the declaration.

“That gives more authority to local governments in order to manage whatever supply we have,” she said.

Costly crisis

California’s situation will soon begin to hit pocketbooks around the state and across the country.

Farmers in sections of the San Joaquin Valley are especially hard hit and face the tough decision of leaving fields fallow this spring. Consumers nationwide are likely to see higher prices for fruit, vegetables and nuts. Almost half the nation’s produce comes from California’s Central Valley.

Cuts in cultivation means fewer jobs for farmworkers and dwindling sales for farm suppliers.

Higher utility bills are in store for urban residents. Cities, including San Diego, have begun to approve water rate increases as wholesale water prices soar.

Dry conditions also carry other risks. The Colby fire in Glendora, 25 miles from downtown Los Angeles where temperatures have been in the low 80s, started after three men built a campfire. It has scorched more than 1,700 acres and destroyed five homes.

Climate scientists are citing global warming as a cause for this dry spell and unusually warm temperatures in January.

“The current historically dry weather is a bellwether of what is to come in California, with increasing periods of drought expected with climate change,” said Juliet Christian-Smith, climate scientist in the California office of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Because increasing demand and drought are straining our water resources, we need to adopt policies that address both the causes and consequences of climate change.”

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