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Local lawmakers call on governor to declare drought emergency

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The Kern River is dry at the Weir Water Control near Riverview Park in this October 2020 file photo.

Kern County lawmakers joined local farmers Wednesday in calling on Gov. Gavin Newsom to declare a drought emergency that would trigger new flexibility in how California's limited water supply is moved around the state.

Two weeks after Sacramento announced the third-tightest allocations in the history of the State Water Project, three local legislators joined five other members of the state Legislature in warning Newsom that reduced deliveries will weaken California's food supply and endanger underserved rural communities.

State officials have pushed back, saying it's still too soon to declare an emergency. They noted the last time California issued a similar proclamation, in 2014, the drought was in its third year. By comparison, this is only the second consecutive dry year, they said.

Local farmers and water managers argue that if the situation isn't urgent then the state shouldn't have cut SWP water allocations last month to 5 percent, which is the same level allowed in 2014. The only time it has been set lower than that was in 1991, when the allocation was set at zero.

"The question is, why are we at a 5-percent allocation, because … the hydrology this year is not as bad as it was in 2014," said Jason Gianquinto, general manager of the Semitropic Water Storage District, which supplies local farmers and operates a water-banking program in northern-central Kern.

On Tuesday the Kern County Farm Bureau urged its members to write to the governor requesting an emergency proclamation. If he did it would make inter-agency water transfers easier, rebalance certain environmental allocations and prioritize conservation among California municipalities.

But a senior official with the state Department of Water Resources, pointing to California law reserving such proclamations for "disaster or … extreme peril," said the state is in only the first or second year of drought.

Normally it's cities and counties that declare emergencies first and ask the state to back them up with its own determination of drought, she said.

The official, Interstate Resources Manager Jeanine Jones, said Bakersfield's precipitation was 117 percent of average in 2020 and, through April 1, this year it's 54 percent.

"It's only a first dry year for Bakersfield and the Kern County area," she said, adding that, in her knowledge, no city or county in the state has proclaimed a drought emergency.

A spokeswoman for the county of Kern did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

On Tuesday, DWR Director Karla Nemeth told the State Ag Board the U.S. Department of Agriculture would probably be the first to declare a drought emergency, according to a report by the news service Agri-Pulse.

She went on to say the governor is not likely to take emergency action soon because the powers that come with such steps are not needed to manage through the end of this year, Agri-Pulse stated.

"If next year is very dry," she reportedly said, "we will absolutely be in an emergency drought proclamation."

One reason a declaration by the governor could be sensitive is that it would rebalance how much water the state sends to the Central Valley and how much is runs through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to support endangered fish species.

Wednesday's letter from lawmakers — signed by state Sen. Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield; Assemblyman Vince Fong, R-Bakersfield; and Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield — argued that action is needed now to avoid food-supply and drinking-water disruptions.

They said the State Water Project must be able to supply the 27 million Californians and 750,000 acres of farmland depending on it. More than $7 billion in annual farm revenues and 85,000 jobs are at stake, they wrote.

Fong said in a news release the state's lack of planning and flawed water policies are to blame.

"Sacramento’s decision to reduce water allocation to our essential farmers who have continued to feed our state throughout the pandemic is unacceptable, and immediate relief is needed," he wrote.

Last month, the State Water Resources Control Board advised water users to prepare for drought impacts statewide. It said 95 percent of California is experiencing moderate to exceptional drought and that reservoir and groundwater levels had fallen "significantly below average." As of March 10, it added, the state's snowpack was 58 percent of average.

Kern County Farm Bureau President John C. Moore III said the primary value of an emergency declaration for its members would be streamlined water transfers. Without it, he said, the region's state-ordered groundwater-sustainability planning becomes especially hard.

Waiting for another year of drought to proclaim a disaster would be waiting too long, he said, because "if we can get in front of this for a year it's going to help us big-time."

Senior staff at the Kern County Water Agency rejected the state's assertion that waiting for local government to act first is more appropriate than asking the governor to take the lead.

General Manager Tom McCarthy said there's "no standard roadmap" for the emergency-declaration process and that, while the agency respects the DWR's handling of the situation, the root problem is a lack of precipitation.

Assistant General Manager Brent Walthall said that it's still too early for agencies to be transferring water. But he added water users need to be on the lookout for such opportunities, such as Northern California water agencies willing to send supplies to the Central Valley.