By any standard, California is experiencing one of its periodic droughts after two successive years of below-normal precipitation.
“We are now facing the reality that it will be a second dry year for California and that is having a significant impact on our water supply,” state water resources director Karla Nemeth said in late March as the state reduced projected deliveries of water to 5% of requested demand.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation has also reduced its commitments to agricultural water agencies to a tiny percentage, reflecting the sobering fact that Northern California’s major reservoirs, such as Shasta and Oroville, are only about half-full from two dry winters.
Preparing for the Reality of Another Drought
“There will be a bunch of annual crops that won’t get planted,” Ernest Conant, the bureau’s regional director, told the New York Times. “I hate doing this, but unfortunately, we just can’t make it rain.”
The situation is roughly where it was six years ago when then-Gov. Jerry Brown declared a water emergency and ordered severe conservation measures.
“We are in a drought unlike one we’ve seen before, and we have to take actions that we haven’t taken before,” Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Board said at the time. “We are not getting the level of effort that the situation clearly warrants.”
As the very dry 2020-21 winter drove home the reality of another drought, a group of state legislators last week sent a letter to Brown’s successor, Gavin Newsom, urging him to also declare a drought emergency.
Newsom Not Ready to Declare a Water Emergency
“This is the slowest, most foreseeable train wreck imaginable,” state Sen. Andreas Borgeas, a Fresno Republican who fostered the letter, said.
Newsom, however, is clearly reluctant to declare an emergency.
“We’re preparing to do many things as it relates to preparing ourselves for the reality formally of second drought conditions,” the governor responded. “As it relates to the specific declaration of emergency which has all kinds of component parts, we are not prepared to do that at this moment.”
His response came as he announced an agreement with legislative leaders on appropriating more than a half-billion extra dollars to prepare for an expected surge in wildfires due to extremely dry conditions.
His mention of “component parts” referred to the steps that might be taken after an emergency declaration, not only mandatory cutbacks in water use but a potential reallocation of scarce water supplies.
The Fight for Water Between Farmers and Environmentalists
Legislators from agricultural areas, such as Borgeas, reflect farmers’ preference for suspending rules governing state and federal diversions from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta so as to provide more water for San Joaquin Valley farms and thus less for habitat protection in the Delta.
The possibility of suspending the Delta operational rules alarms environmentalists who have been sparring for decades with agricultural interests over how the estuary’s water is divvied up.
It is one of the potential political flashpoints of a drought emergency declaration and thus adds another factor in the recall election that Newsom almost certainly faces this year.
Another Issue to Add to Newsom’s List
“The governor’s in a very tricky situation,” Darry Sragow, a veteran California Democratic strategist, told Politico. “While Newsom may be considering drought controls, I’m sure he’s hearing voices telling him that Californians can only tolerate so much pain and suffering.”
While recent polling indicates that most California voters are not inclined to support Newsom’s recall now, its outcome will depend on their mood a half-year from now. With COVID-19 not yet fully contained, with a sluggish economic recovery, with the looming threats of wildfires and power shortages and now with drought, Newsom will be traversing a field full of political landmines.
About the Author
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.