Drought’s not over for everybody

Localized flooding on the American River near Folsom Dam. (Photo: David Greitzer

Most Californians are – finally – out of the drought, but the record-setting rains have not washed away emergency conditions for all residents.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s April 7 executive order lifted the drought state of emergency for 54 of California’s 58 counties. Those excluded were Tulare, Kings and Fresno in the heart of the farm belt, and Tuolomne, which includes part of the high Sierra and the western foothills.

“This drought emergency is over, but the next drought could be around the corner.” — Jerry Brown

By keeping those areas under drought rules, authorities can bypass lengthy contract requirements and quickly provide assistance for areas facing drinking water shortages, said Max Gomberg, the climate and conservation manager for the State Water Resources Control Board, which enforces water regulations.

“We still got communities that are water short, but the (drought state of emergency) allows us to complete projects that are already under way,” Gomberg said.

In addition to delivering water bottles and building storage tanks, the water board and the Office of Emergency Services also can continue infrastructure work for communities with unreliable access to safe drinking water.

The executive order reflects the impact of the winter rains and Sierra snowpack, but it also acknowledged a need to plan for future droughts.

“This drought emergency is over, but the next drought could be around the corner. Conservation must remain a way of life,” Brown said in a statement.

Barring wasteful urban water practices, like rinsing sidewalks or washing a car without a shut-off nozzle, was introduced as a temporary restriction in 2014, but under Brown’s latest order the bans have been made permanent.

The announcement marks a substantial increase from the maximum 5 percent allocations that farmers received during peak drought years.

Meanwhile, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, the first law that attempts to regulate the pumping of California aquifers, will be put into effect in 2020.

Gomberg said Central Valley agricultural wells were dug so deep during the drought that shallower domestic wells in nearby rural communities went dry. While the past two rainy seasons have replenished some of these domestic groundwater sources, many are still dry.

Though Kings, Tulare and Fresno counties also contain some of California’s largest agricultural areas, Gomberg said the executive order will have virtually no impact on the areas’ farmers.

Those served by the federal Central Valley Project received welcome news when The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation a full, 100 percent water allocation for 2017.

The announcement marks a substantial increase from the maximum 5 percent allocations that farmers received during peak drought years.

Gayle Holman, a spokeswoman for Westlands Water District, said the increase will slow growers from pumping the Central Valley’s groundwater supply.

Westlands, which encompasses parts of western Fresno and Kings counties, is the largest agricultural district in the United States and years of dry winters have devastated the district’s 600,000 acres.

Central Valley communities continue to report illegal levels of arsenic in drinking water.

“Groundwater has always been kind of the safety-net,” Holman said. “It’s a relief that now we don’t need to rely on it and that we have the resources available for the long term.”

Kelsey Hinton, a spokeswoman for the Tulare county based non-profit Community Water Center, said many of the drought-caused drinking water problems that plagued California’s rural areas still persist – including water contamination and depleted groundwater supplies, still persist.

Central Valley communities continue to report illegal levels of arsenic in drinking water, she added. Also, though Tulare now has more than 1000 fewer active well failures than it did in November 2015, according to the county’s website, over 30 of the county’s domestic wells went dry this past March.

“Even though the rain is good and positive for the state overall, the same challenges are definitely still there and still need to be addressed in these communities” Hinton said.

She noted that “Making Conservation a California Way of Life,” another Brown-signed executive order that aims to build long-term drought resistance throughout California, should also protect rural areas from future dry conditions.

Part of the order directs the state Department of Water Resources must work with counties to develop better drought planning for small rural areas, a requirement previously held only for larger water suppliers that had over 3,000 connections.

“Domestic well communities that don’t have a water supplier didn’t have a plan in place when this drought got as bad as it did,” she said. “(The executive order) will hopefully take this problem head on, and get those places covered and consistent so that when drought happens again people know who to contact, which communities are most vulnerable and where the resources should be connected,” Hinton said.

Ed’s Note: Daniel Maraccini is a Capitol Weekly intern from UCLA.

  • Becky Steinbruner

    Keeping those Central Valley counties under water emergency may be helpful for fast-tracking improvements but what about the very real overdraft problem in the Central Coast areas of Monterey and Santa Cruz Counties? Most of the supply there is 100% groundwater-dependent, with sea water intrusion advancing steadily. Soquel Creek Water District has had a Water Demand Offset program since 2003, and declared a Groundwater Emergency in 2014. However, the Board continues to approve new service for residential units and large developments.

    It would be good it Governor Brown would keep Monterey and Santa Cruz Counties also included in the State Water Emergency provision. The problem continues to be exacerbated, and the area could use the help along with Fresno, Merced and Tulare counties.

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