As dry conditions persist locally and throughout California for a second straight year, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday declared a drought emergency — but only in two of the state’s counties.
Though Newsom has yet to declare a drought statewide, the emergency declaration for Sonoma and Mendocino counties also orders state agencies to work with local districts across California to address drought conditions through conservation, funding for water supply improvements and assistance monitoring drinking water wells.
According to the governor’s office, these steps will bolster drought resilience and prepare for impacts on communities, businesses and ecosystems should dry conditions extend to a third year.
“California is facing the familiar reality of drought conditions, and we know the importance of acting early to anticipate and mitigate the most severe impacts where possible,” Newsom said. “Climate change is intensifying both the frequency and the severity of dry periods. This ‘new normal’ gives urgency to building drought resilience in regions across the state and preparing for what may be a prolonged drought at our doorstep.”
State Senator Andreas Borgeas, who represents Turlock and is the Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman, said Newsom’s regional drought declaration for the two Northern California counties overlooks the Central Valley.
Borgeas and other lawmakers had previously sent the governor two requests asking for a statewide declaration of emergency, with the second noting U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s similar letter to Newsom which alerted him of 50 California counties, including Stanislaus, that had been designated by the Biden Administration as primary natural disaster areas due to drought.
“California is in a drought. We need a statewide emergency declaration immediately in order to deliver more water to farmers and growers in the Valley,” Borgeas said.
Congressman Jim Costa has also gone on the record urging Newsom to declare a water emergency, while Congressman Josh Harder stated the Central Valley needs a voice in the fight and advocated for federally-supported infrastructure investments.
“It’s more than clear our state is heading for a drought. It’s a no-brainer,” Harder said. “So, here’s what needs to happen. First, the Central Valley needs to have a seat at the table in any and all conversations on water. We’re the first to get hit when droughts occur and the last to recover, and we won’t be pushed around by Sacramento when it comes to our water. Second, the federal government needs to step up and deliver on real water infrastructure investments. Since day one, I’ve been calling on all administrations – Democratic and Republican – to support smart and sustainable storage projects such as the Del Puerto Canyon one, and I won’t stop until we secure the funding we need here in the Valley. When every year feels like a drought year, the time to invest in water storage infrastructure is right now.”
During Tuesday’s Board of Directors meeting, Turlock Irrigation District Hydrologist Olivia Cramer provided an update on the lack of rainfall in the Tuolumne River Watershed, which has received just 17.27 inches of rainfall since the current water year began in September, or just 53.1% of average.
In fact, every month of the water year so far has seen precipitation levels that are below average except for in January, when rainfall slightly exceeded the historical average for the month.
While just 2% of April’s average rainfall has accumulated in the watershed this month, another quarter of an inch is expected this weekend and the forecast for the next two weeks predicts an average-to-wet scenario of anywhere from an inch to 2.5 inches.
“Last week we did receive a little bit of precipitation. It’s not a lot to write home about, but we did get 0.07 inches,” Cramer said, noting large precipitation events rarely take place from here on out during the water year, which runs through August. “...It is always possible that an atmospheric river can occur, just the likelihood of it is very low.”
The U.S. Drought Monitor currently shows that 100% of the state is experiencing at least abnormally dry conditions, compared to just over 58% one year ago. Nearly 97% of the state is currently in at least what is defined as a moderate drought and 85% are classified as experiencing at least severe drought conditions. Just under 50% of California is experiencing extreme to exceptional drought conditions.
While Newsom stood on the cracked floor of the two-thirds empty Lake Mendocino to make his announcement on Wednesday, Lake Don Pedro is in a bit better shape but could be near 50% capacity by summer’s end should the dry scenario continue, according to Cramer. Lake Don Pedro currently sits at 68% of capacity, or 93% of the historical average according to the California Data Exchange Center website.
“California farmers need to make decisions now,” said Borgeas. “We can’t wait until the zenith of the drought to take action. Declaring an emergency will allow state agencies to cut through red tape and deliver more water to Valley farms. We can’t afford to wait any longer.”
For information on current water conditions at the state's largest reservoirs and weather stations, visit https://cdec.water.ca.gov/snow_rain.html.