No relief in sight for California´s record drought

Jan 24, 2014

California’s record making drought has ag producers doing more than just rain dances. Groups such as the California Farm Bureau are hoping that the extreme conditions will send lawmakers to the table with a new water plan for the parched state.

California’s worst drought in a century is devastating the state’s agriculture and destroying its forest land, which is being consumed by wildfire, Gov. Jerry Brown said as he declared a state emergency on Jan. 17.

More than 90 percent of California is experiencing severe drought conditions. Last year, dozens of cities in California set new records for lowest levels of precipitation; Occidential, Big Sur and Crescent all recorded rain totals 30 to 40 inches below average, according to National Weather Service statistics. And the long term conditions don’t leave much hope either. The longer-term outlook is even worse. The snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains is at just 20 percent of normal, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The emergency declaration allows California to access federal help to battle the drought, which has left huge swathes of tinder-dry forest vulnerable to catching fire.

A massive blaze that raged just outside Los Angeles damaged several homes and forced residents to evacuate the area where the fire risk had been elevated for weeks.

Brown urged residents of his state to reduce their water use by at least 20 percent.

“I’ve declared this emergency and I’m calling on all Californians to conserve water in every way possible,” he said in his statement.

“We can’t make it rain,” he added.

“But we can be much better prepared for the terrible consequences that California’s drought now threatens, including dramatically less water for our farms and communities, and increased fires in both urban and rural areas.”

Brown told reporters in San Francisco that the current conditions were “the worst drought that California has ever seen since records (began) about 100 years ago,” media reports said.

The region is suffering its third dry winter in a row, highlighted by the Los Angeles blaze.

California and other western states are routinely hit with wildfires during the summer, but winter fires like the ones currently raging, are relatively rare.

California’s rivers and reservoirs have reached record lows, with only 20 percent of the normal average supplies of water from melting snow pack, which flows down from mountains like the Sierra Nevada northto-south range.

The extreme drought conditions are nothing short of a reminder of the state’s growing water problems, and the emergency declaration is only a small piece.

In welcoming Gov. Brown’s declaration of a drought emergency, California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger said he hopes the action will give state agencies increased flexibility to act in people’s best interest, and said the federal government should follow the governor’s lead in taking immediate action to provide flexibility in regulations that could hinder water transfers.

“Given the unprecedented dry weather we have endured for the past 13 months, it’s entirely appropriate for the governor to declare a drought emergency and we appreciate his timely action,” Wenger said.

“Farmers across California face wrenching decisions today, as well as in coming months. Will they have enough water to plant crops, to water their livestock, and keep trees and vines alive? An additional concern is how many people they may have to lay off as a result of water shortages. Any way the state and federal governments can provide assistance in adding water to the system will help,” he said.

Wenger said he also hopes the governor’s action will bring increased attention to the longer-term water supply crisis California faces, which is compounded by population growth, environmental regulations and now, by drought.

“We don’t know if this is Year three of a three-year drought or year three of a longer drought,” he said. “We do know that long droughts can be a feature of the California climate— and we know one way to insulate ourselves from droughts is to store more water when we can.

“While he leads California through this drought, we urge Governor Brown to lead the campaign for new water storage,” Wenger said. “California has continued to improve its water efficiency, both on the farm and at home, but conservation alone won’t solve our chronic water supply problems. California must commit to improve its water system—and new storage, both above ground and underground, provide more flexibility to respond to more volatile weather patterns.”

Wenger noted that California has an opportunity to invest in new supply by re-crafting a water bond scheduled for the ballot this year.

State lawmakers have unsuccessfully pushed an $11 billion water bond measure for several years. Some lawmakers are now pushing a smaller water bond for this year’s ballot. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor