The 2021 drought is quickly becoming an emergency. Kern County’s supply from the State Water Project has been reduced to just 5 percent of a full allocation. Rainfall is about half of average. And with each passing dry day, the drought gets worse.
Low water allocations result from low water storage and rainfall, and in recent years, California’s rainfall has varied widely. In 2014, California experienced one of the worst droughts in recent memory and the water allocation to Kern County that year also was 5 percent. Those memories were washed away just three years later, when 2017 turned out to be the wettest year on record. This year we are back to a water allocation of just 5 percent and the state needs to quickly implement some of the same options it used to manage the 2014 drought.
During the last drought, Gov. Brown issued a drought emergency declaration that prioritized actions state agencies could take to reduce the impact of the drought on Californians. Some of those ideas were important in helping Kern County endure the drought and they can help us again this year. But to provide that help, state agencies will need an emergency declaration from Gov. Newsom to implement those actions.
California needs to begin saving water today. Water conservation is the first tool to use in any drought and direction to encourage all Californians to conserve water needs to come from the top. In 2014, DWR led a statewide water conservation campaign to make all Californians aware of the drought and encourage them to reduce their water use by 20 percent. A similar statewide water conservation effort should be implemented immediately so water conservation is part of our daily lives before the hot summer months arrive.
Californians also need to use the water we do have this year in the most efficient way possible. The ability to transfer water easily and quickly between farmers, or between cities and farms, is a critical part of managing water during droughts. The Department of Water Resources recently completed an amendment to water contracts with local public water agencies that improves water transfers among the agencies that get water from DWR. Shortening the process necessary to approve water transfers for local public water agencies that do not get water from the State Water Project also is necessary to maximize water transfers for cities and farms this year. Directing DWR and the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) to coordinate their water transfer approval processes so that transfers can be approved in a matter of days or weeks will help make sure the water we do have is used efficiently.
The SWRCB sets the standards for releasing water from reservoirs in a manner that protects downstream fisheries. Those protections are important in all years, but in severe droughts like this year, it also is important to consider the needs of cities and farms. The SWRCB should reexamine its reservoir release standards to determine if they can be modified to allow for more water to flow to cities and farms while providing adequate protections for fish. Reexamining those standards in a way that can relieve the impact of the drought will require a drought emergency declaration that gives the SWRCB the ability to quickly review the restrictions it places on local, state and federal water agencies and modify them if necessary.
Making these kinds of changes is a temporary response to the drought but making them quickly can be difficult under some of the state’s environmental laws. None of those laws should be changed just to accommodate a drought, but to make water immediately available the state should consider temporarily suspending the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, as it did in 2014 because strict compliance with CEQA will prevent state agencies from taking action this year.
Through water conservation, groundwater banking and innovative water transfers, the farmers and residents of Kern County have done a good job preparing for years when the state can only provide 5 percent of the water supply we need. But Kern County’s families, farms and businesses also need state agencies to have the flexibility to make additional water supplies available through a drought emergency declaration. No amount of local planning will make up for a 5 percent water supply allocation without the flexibility provided to state agencies by a drought emergency declaration from Gov. Newsom.
Royce Fast is the Kern County Water Agency Board of Directors president.