Californians recognize drought when it occurs. With just four short years since the worst drought in California history, water challenges always remain top of mind. At this moment, 94 percent of California is experiencing “moderate” to “exceptional” drought conditions.
The last two winters have been disappointingly dry, leaving California's major reservoirs reduced and accelerating the pace of the 2021 drought to emergency levels. The governor’s administration recently announced that it expects to deliver a mere 5 percent of requested supplies from the State Water Project, a percentage so low it mirrors the same dire conditions that prompted then-Governor Brown to declare a drought emergency in 2014. Despite nearly identical precursory conditions, bipartisan pressure from Central Valley lawmakers, and public outcries from farmers and water agencies, Gov. Gavin Newsom has yet to follow suit.
Governor Newsom’s lack of urgency welcomes speculation on why he remains strangely silent. In the entire state, the Central Valley has the most at stake when water supplies are restricted and the governor is refusing to exercise his authority to provide flexibility, relief and water when we need it most.
The Central Valley — the farm capital of the world — grows the food we all count on. The pandemic showed us how essential our farmers are to our state and nation. Our farmers, who deeply understand the pressures of drought conditions, know all too well the consequences of procrastinating rather than acting proactively.
Declaring a state of emergency provides much-needed flexibility to mitigate the impacts of a drought and for regions and the state to determine our greater priority needs and to remove barriers when transferring water. Our water system was designed to help the state weather four to five years of drought. But because of state regulations, its effectiveness has been curtailed to the point where it can barely withstand one year. Even in dry years like now, precious and vital water supplies that could be moved to our region are pushed out into the ocean. A world-class water storage and conveyance system has been brought to its knees due to overregulation and misplaced priorities.
The ability to move water quickly between cities and farms is a critical part of managing and maximizing the state’s limited water supply. Governor Newsom should direct the DWR and the State Water Resources Control Board to curtail red tape and streamline the water transfer approval process to ensure our water supply is used in the most efficient way possible.
During a drought, it is critical for the state to get smarter and to adapt quickly. The state should re-examine the state’s reservoir release standards and determine if they can be modified to allow for more water to flow to cities and farms during times of severe drought. Modifying these standards, with respect to downstream fish migration, will provide drought relief for rural communities that depend on it for safe drinking water and to sustain our food supply.
Declaring a drought emergency is common sense and crucial at this time. The governor’s reluctance and attempts to explain away why the state is not being proactive despite our state’s long history of dealing with droughts is befuddling and frustrating. Each day that goes by with no answer is increasingly consequential for the Central Valley. We need to move water to our communities now.
Assemblyman Vince Fong represents the 34th Assembly District in the California State Legislature.