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Newsom Adds Nearly 40 Counties to Ever-Growing Drought List

Dwindling snowpack and reservoir levels prompted the governor to declare drought emergencies across major swaths of Northern California and the agriculturally rich Central Valley.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Pinning the blame on global warming for a quickly diminishing snowpack and disappearing reservoir levels, California Governor Gavin Newsom on Monday declared drought emergencies across much of the agricultural growing regions and normally water-rich areas of the state.

The emergency orders cover the state’s main watersheds and will give water regulators and agencies more flexibility as they attempt to steer through one of the driest stretches on record.

Newsom says climate change is behind the unseasonable heat wave that has melted an already meager snowpack months earlier than usual and caused record-low springtime stream and reservoir levels across the state.

“With the reality of climate change abundantly clear in California, we’re taking urgent action to address acute water supply shortfalls in northern and central California while also building our water resilience to safeguard communities in the decades ahead,” Newsom said in a statement.

An estimated 30% of the state’s population is under a drought emergency as Newsom continues to add counties to the list.

From a dry lakebed last month, Newsom issued the first drought declarations in Mendocino and neighboring Sonoma counties. Monday’s additions include larger counties like Alameda, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Fresno, Kern and Contra Costa as well as less-populated ones in Shasta, Butte and Tuolumne.  Newsom has now declared emergencies in 41 of the state’s 53 counties.

With the exposed, steep shorelines of San Luis Reservoir in Merced County in the background, Newsom told reporters the lack of captured snowmelt in recent weeks spurred the decision to expand the drought declarations. For now he’s refusing to consider a blanket statewide emergency, but said more counties will likely be added.

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. 

Months ahead of schedule, California’s entire snowpack has nearly melted — yet the runoff hasn’t produced a corresponding rise in lake levels. As a result, each of the largest Northern California reservoirs are emptying quickly, including Shasta Lake, which sits at 56% of its historical average, and Lake Oroville at 50%. Experts say not only has the snowpack melted earlier than usual, the runoff is either evaporating due to hot temperatures or being sucked up by dry soils.  

Over the last two years the state routinely missed out on the powerful winter storms known as atmospheric rivers, watching helplessly as they shoved north to Oregon and Washington state. Consecutive disappointing winters mean 97% of the state is now experiencing some degree of drought, according to the latest federal update.

As was the case during the state’s record previous drought, both the federal government and state have halted or abandoned water deliveries to farmers due to low reservoir levels.

While a wide range of groups have been pushing Newsom to declare a statewide emergency as his predecessor did, he’s thus far taken a more targeted approach. Household water restrictions are not yet in place for the majority of the state, but Newsom and state officials encouraged residents to continue with the conservation tactics of the last drought.

“It’s time for Californians to pull together once again to save water,” said California Natural Resources Agency Secretary Wade Crowfoot. “All of us need to find every opportunity to save water where we can: limit outdoor watering, take shorter showers, turn off the water while brushing your teeth or washing dishes.”

If needed, the declarations will enable the state to keep more water in reservoirs such as Oroville by temporarily loosening water quality standards downstream in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The orders could also lead to other actions like rock barriers in the delta to prevent saltwater intrusion as was done during the previous drought.  

In addition to the emergency orders, Newsom said he will try to convince lawmakers during budget negotiations to spend over $5 billion to jumpstart dam renovations and other infrastructure projects the agricultural industry has been demanding for decades. He said the state’s infrastructure can no longer keep up with climate change.

“The hots are getting a lot hotter, the dries a lot drier; we have to recognize that we’re living in a world we were not designed to live in,” Newsom told reporters.

To fund the water improvements, Newsom is proposing the state pull from an estimated $75 billion surplus and over $25 billion in remaining federal Covid-19 aid. He also wants to allocate $1 billion to help with past-due water bills and boost struggling rural urban water providers. 

The Democratic governor will unveil his revised budget proposal on Friday and has until June 15 to reach and sign a 2021-22 budget with the Legislature. 

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