Dry California Officially in a State of Drought

SACRAMENTO, California (ENS) – After two straight years of below-average rainfall, low snowmelt runoff and the largest court-ordered water transfer restrictions in state history, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger Wednesday proclaimed a statewide drought, the first official drought since 1991.

The state’s final snow survey of 2008 conducted in May showed snowpack water content at only 67 percent of normal and the runoff forecast at only 55 percent of normal. Numerous California communities now are being forced to mandate water conservation or rationing.

The governor urged all Californians to conserve water and ordered the Department of Water Resources to begin transferring water to areas with the most critical need.

“We must recognize the severity of the crisis we face,” said Governor Schwarzenegger, “so I am signing an Executive Order proclaiming a statewide drought and directing my Department of Water Resources and other entities to take immediate action to address the situation.”

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger
declares a statewide drought.
(Photo courtesy Office of
the Governor)

The Executive Order directs the Department of Water Resources, DWR to facilitate water transfers to respond to emergency shortages across the state and expedite existing grant programs to help local water districts and agencies conserve.

The DWR is directed to work with local water districts and agencies to improve local coordination and help local water districts and agencies improve water efficiency and conservation.

The agency must coordinate with other state and federal agencies and departments to assist water suppliers, identify risks to water supply and help farmers suffering losses.

The lack of water has created other problems, such as extreme fire danger due to dry conditions, economic harm to urban and rural communities, loss of crops and the potential to degrade water quality in some regions.

“For the areas in Northern California that supply most of our water, this March, April and May have been the driest ever in our recorded history,” the governor said. “As a result, some local governments are rationing water, developments can’t proceed and agricultural fields are sitting idle.”

For instance, water rationing went into effect in May for East Bay residents after water managers unanimously passed a drought management program.

Residents of single-family homes in Alameda and Contra Costa counties must cut water use by 19 percent; golf courses must reduce water use by one-third; industrial users must cut water use by five percent. Citations and the possibility of reduced water flow or disconnected service are the penalties for noncompliance.

The court-ordered water transfer restrictions mentioned by the governor originated last year in the Fresno courtroom of federal district Judge Oliver Wanger, who found that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and National Marine Fisheries Service ignored their own evidence that dwindling fish populations would be harmed as they looked to increase water exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Judge Wanger imposed new rules on state and federal Delta pumps to protect the threatened Delta smelt. Those rules are expected to reduce water deliveries by as much as 30 percent this year to 25 million Californians.

As conditions continue to worsen across California, the governor says the state urgently needs infrastructure improvements to capture excess water in wet years to use in dry years like this one.

The Donnels Reservoir in the
Sierra Mountains is shrinking.
(Photo by Phae)

“This drought is an urgent reminder of the immediate need to upgrade California’s water infrastructure,” Governor Schwarzenegger said. “There is no more time to waste because nothing is more vital to protect our economy, our environment and our quality of life. We must work together to ensure that California will have safe, reliable and clean water not only today but 20, 30 and 40 years from now.”

In 2006, the governor called for a comprehensive plan to address California’s urgent water needs. He renewed that call in his 2008-09 budget by proposing an $11.9 billion water bond for water management investments that will address population growth, climate change, water supply reliability and environmental needs.

The bond includes:

* Water Storage: $3.5 billion dedicated to the development of additional water storage behind new dams.
* Delta Sustainability: $2.4 billion to help implement a sustainable resource management plan for the Delta.
* Water Resources Stewardship: $1.1 billion to implement river restoration projects.
* Water Conservation: $3.1 billion to increase water use efficiency.
* Water Quality Improvement: $1.1 billion for efforts to reduce the contamination of groundwater.
* Other Critical Water Projects: $700 million for water recycling, hillside restoration for areas devastated by fire and removal of fish barriers on key rivers and streams.

But California Democratic lawmakers and conservation groups have resisted the governor’s proposals to build more dams for water storage.

Planning and Conservation League Executive Director Traci Sheehan Van Thull said Wednesday, “Unfortunately, the governor’s Executive Order relies heavily on outdated strategies that have created the very problems we now seek to solve. We encourage the governor to embrace measures that will allow California to grow without increasing demand on already over-allocated water sources.”

“We need strong policies that can decrease water demand, provide climate-resilient water supplies, and truly provide relief for the communities, fisherman, businesses and ecosystems that are suffering from lack of reliable water,” she said.

The Planning and Conservation League, supported by environmental groups such as Clean Water Action, the Sierra Nevada Alliance, Restore the Delta and the California Coastal Coalition, has proposed a plan that emphasizes conservation, watershed restoration, and pumping water back into aquifers to be stored underground.

If properly funded, they note, several million acre feet of water could be produced through these sustainable methods. They say the state’s own water assessment plan shows that conservation can eliminate the need for new dams.

Sheehan Van Thull says conservation groups support measures such as Assembly Member Paul Krekorian’s Water Efficiency Security Act, co-sponsored by the Planning and Conservation League.

“However, despite a groundswell of support, from local water agencies, to city councils, community groups and conservation organizations, this pivotal measure failed to gain traction in the State Assembly,” she said.

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