Drought Declared in Two California Counties

Two consecutive dry winters in California have created drought-like conditions throughout the state. But Governor Gavin Newsom says a targeted approach is needed even as water supply issues loom. 

(CN) — California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency in California Wednesday — but restricted the declaration to two counties. 

Newsom declared a drought emergency in Sonoma and Mendocino counties, where a lack of rainfall has farmers and other businesses that rely on water fretting about the future as a second consecutive dry winter has afflicted the region. 

“This is a sequential approach and a targeted approach,” said Newsom, who has come under pressure to declare a statewide drought and conditions have deteriorated. “We will add other counties as necessary.”

Newsom gathered with other lawmakers in the dry bed of Lake Mendocino, which is at 43% of capacity. Lake Sonoma, right down the road from the press conference, is currently at 62% of capacity. 

California received precious little precipitation during its current water year, which began in October, with water managers chalking it up as the fourth driest on record dating back to 1877. Only 22.4 inches fell in the North Sierra as measured by the 8-station index. The average annual precipitation is about 50 inches. 

But Newsom noted the drought currently plaguing the Golden State isn’t unique to its geographical boundaries. 

“Currently 77% of the West Coast is in a megadrought,” Newsom said. “Iowa, Texas, North Dakota are all struggling with extreme drought conditions.”

According to the latest report by the U.S. Drought Monitor, about 91% of the American West is experiencing some drought-like conditions. In California, such conditions encompass the entire state. A third of California is experiencing conditions that qualify as “extreme drought,” including portions of Sonoma and Mendocino counties. 

The focus on Sonoma and Mendocino comes due to the relative isolation of the Russian River watershed, which produces much of the water for farmers, ranchers and winemakers in the region. This differs from many areas of California that see their water delivered via a complex system of pipelines, pumps, reservoirs and channels. 

“This area relies on precipitation falling,” said Wade Crowfoot, secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency. “That’s why we have to expand conservation and build flexibility. This climate change-driven drought means there is a concerning lack of water supply in Sonoma County and down the road in Mendocino County.”

Several officials who spoke hearkened back to the five-year drought that plagued California from 2012 through 2016. The event led to water conservation measures including tiered systems, where households that used water amounts over certain thresholds triggered higher rates. 

Newsom said his administration would stop short of ordering conservation mandates for now, but did not rule out statewide action at some point. 

“We barely got out of the drought conditions from 2016 and now we are right back in those conditions,” he said. 

Crowfoot said the length of the last drought means California may be at the beginning of the ordeal rather than near the end. 

“This is the second year of a drought and the last one lasted about five years,” he said. 

The lack of rainfall also has officials fretting about an early start to the wildfire season. California has marshaled hundreds of firefighters at a time when most are preparing for the season that tends to kick in around mid to late summer. 

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