Gov. Gavin Newsom is flanked by Fresno County Supervisor Brian Pacheco, Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer and Joe Prado with Fresno County's health department during a Feb. 10 appearance in Fresno. Photo by Breanna Hardy
Written by Edward Smith
After being called on to declare a statewide emergency for drastically low water levels, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday made a declaration — for Mendocino and Sonoma counties.
Water levels for the Russian River watershed in the two counties are at record lows, according to a press release from Newsom’s office, prompting him to initiate the response. Reservoirs there are also at record lows following two critically dry years.
“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 in the release.
The declaration will allow state agencies to consider releasing more water from reservoirs.
Lake Sonoma is at 62% capacity and Lake Mendocino is at 43%.
The emergency order noted degraded water quality, fallowing of farmland and job losses in vulnerable and rural communities.
The Governor’s press office said that drought conditions are regional and impacts vary across the state.
“The Governor’s actions yesterday ensure flexibility for the state to act quickly as conditions dictate and offer targeted support where impacts are more severe and require assistance beyond locally available resources,” the response said.
The Sonoma Water utility serves 600,000 residents the area, according to CalMatters.
Newsom recognized the need for early action in the emergency order.
But many have called on Newsom to declare a statewide emergency.
Newsom’s press office did not respond to media requests by press time.
“I understand the circumstances going on for those urban centers up there,” said Ryan Jacobsen, CEO of the Fresno County Farm Bureau. “It is concerning what those folks are going through but when you compare it to the Central Valley, it’s hard to see a difference.”
Jacobsen said the water levels for the Kings River watershed are the second lowest they’ve been since the 1890s for the time between October and March.
Most recent data from the United States Drought Monitor showed 77% of Fresno County as being in at least severe drought designation. Data show 39% of the county as being at least extreme drought.
In Mendocino County data show 92% of the county as being considered at least in severe drought and 23% considered being at least in extreme drought.
One hundred percent of Kern County has been designated as being at least in sever drought and 75% of the county is in extreme drought.
Jacobsen said it’s just a matter of time before the Central Valley is considered in a drought. Time is of the essence.
“It needs to be called at some point the earlier we call it the better it is,” said Jacobsen.
Most immediately, an emergency declaration speeds up approval processes for water transfers, which can take months, Jacobsen said.
An emergency drought declaration also allows state agencies to consider releasing more water stored in reservoirs.
The State Water Project and Central Valley Project that supply farmers in the Central Valley have already responded to dry conditions. The 5% allocation given to farmers in western Fresno County by the Central Valley Project was delayed until further notice.
Roland Fumasi, head of RaboResearch Food and Agribusiness with Rabobank, said the number of water transfers will increase significantly because of the allocations.
The Veles California Water Index price for an acre-foot of water increased to $780 from $530 following the allocation announcement. The Veles California Water Index follows the price of water transactions in the Western United States, particularly California.
A group of Republican members of Congress called on Gov. Newsom to extend the declaration beyond just the two coastal counties in northern California. Representatives David Valadao, Kevin McCarthy, Ken Calvert, Mike Garcia, Darrell Issa, Young Kim, Doug LaMalfa, Devin Nunes and Michelle Steel released a joint statement Wednesday:
“Far more than two counties in California are in desperate need of water. The Central Valley is responsible for putting food on the table for the rest of the nation, and farmers and ranchers simply cannot grow the food we need without reliable access to water.”
The Governor’s press office said that the administration may add additional regions to the state of emergency as conditions dictate in the coming months.
“There is nothing at this point in the season that is going to change the catastrophic water situation we’re going to be in by late summer,” said Jacobsen. “We don’t know if this is year two of a two-year drought or year two of a five-year drought.”