California Governor Declares Drought Emergency in Two Counties – Is It Enough?


An aerial view of the California Aqueduct, which moves water from northern California to the state's drier south, on April 21, 2021 near Bakersfield, California. Mario Tama / Getty Images

As California enters its second consecutive dry year and braces for what could be another devastating wildfire season, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency on Wednesday, in just two counties. The declaration targets Mendocino and Sonoma counties, known for their wineries and grape growing, and where conditions are desperately dry.

Standing in the dry bottom of Lake Mendocino, Newsom said, “Oftentimes we overstate the word historic, but this is indeed an historic moment, certainly historic for this particular lake, Mendocino,” according to AP News. The lake is at about 40 percent of its normal capacity. Lake Sonoma, another local reservoir, is only about 62 percent full.

According to the California Department of Water Resources, this is the state’s fourth-driest year on record, especially in the northern parts of the state. At the beginning of the month, state officials announced that snow accumulation in the Sierra Nevada mountains and the Cascades was about 40 percent below average levels, The Guardian reported.

Newsom’s declaration has already faced criticism from state officials and farmers in the Central Valley, who say the governor’s approach isn’t sufficient to address the drought that impacts almost all parts of the state.

“(T)he Central Valley can’t afford to be overlooked,” state Sen. Andreas Borgeas (R-Fresno) said in a statement, according to The Mercury News. “We need a statewide emergency declaration immediately in order to deliver more water to farmers and growers in the Valley.”

To others, the governor’s regional approach “sounds like a good idea,” Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences and a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis, told The Mercury News, who added that the governor should not declare a widespread drought too early, to avoid “crying wolf.”

Currently, California is in a similar situation to what it experienced six years ago when former Gov. Jerry Brown declared a water emergency. But state officials say today’s current drought will be unlike anything seen before, requiring innovative measures, according to CalMatters.

Although the governor has yet to declare a state-wide emergency, officials have been warning Californians of the drought. In March, the California’s State Water Resources Control Board, for example, “sent early warnings to 40,000 water rights holders urging them to start conserving,” AP News reported.

“If you’re in a different part of the state, you probably need to know that this will one day happen to you,” Karla Nemeth, director of the California Department of Water Resources, said of the drought declaration, according to AP News.

In early April, a group of state legislators sent a letter to Newsom urging him to declare a drought emergency, CalMatters reported. “This is the slowest, most foreseeable train wreck imaginable,” said Sen. Borgeas, who helped write the letter.

Newsom’s reluctance to declare a state-wide emergency may have something to do with his looming recall campaign, set for later this year, according to political strategist Dan Schnur, The Mercury News reported.

“It’s hard to think of another explanation about why he’d be tiptoeing around such a critically important issue,” Schnur told The Mercury News. “He’s clearly very sensitive about pushing voters too hard on water usage in the aftermath of the pandemic restrictions.”

Regardless of whether the declaration covers their county, some local water districts are already taking matters into their own hands. In Marin County, for example, adjacent to Sonoma, water officials voted Tuesday to require residents to reduce water use by measures such as not washing vehicles at home or filling backyard pools, AP News reported.

As the state continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic and a sluggish economy, scarce resources and the threat of another wildfire season will only ignite further tensions. Acknowledging that water is a “politically fractious issue” in the state, Gov. Newsom urged people not to resort to “old binaries” like urban vs. rural, The Mercury News reported.

“This is California,” he said. “We are Californians.”

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