Governor’s Second Drought Declaration Strikes a Delicate Balance

With nearly all of California unable to shake off one of the most stubborn droughts in its history, Governor Brown is taking steps to prepare the state for the long dry season that looms ahead.

Last week, he issued his second proclamation of drought emergency since the start of the year. In doing so, he called out the likely connection between the drought and climate change, stating, “We are playing Russian Roulette with our environment.”

The Governor’s proclamation orders expedited actions and eases regulations across key state agencies and local actors, including the Department of Food and Agriculture, Department of Water Resources, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and local homeowners associations.

In addressing the needs of water users across the state, it is clear the Governor faces some tough decisions for managing drought impacts on farms, cities, and the environment. Too timid a response could leave water users stranded; too heavy a hand could hurt regulatory authority and damage fragile ecosystems already crippled by drought.

The Governor has gone for a balance between these approaches, and last Friday’s executive order has largely been praised by stakeholders across the spectrum.

So what does the Governor’s second set of drought orders mean for California’s farms and ranches?

Easier water transfers may improve delivery in some areas.Thus far, 2014 has not been a good year for operations dependent upon water deliveries. In preparation for the coming months, the Governor has lessened restrictions and shortened approval processes for water transfers and exchanges in the state. In doing so, he has also suspended or lowered some water quality control standards for achieving these actions. Most notably, he has suspended California Environmental Quality Act review for some key actions—a step frequently taken during extreme droughts such as this one. While these regulations are crucial to protecting water users and ecosystems alike, their suspension has so far only seen mild critiques from environmental groups. Still, it is unclear what practical effect the Governor’s actions will have for individual farm operations so long as water remains exceedingly scarce.

Tightened conservation and efficiency requirements for state-funded projects that impact water resources. The Governor’s order requires all state agencies that distribute funding related to water resources to ensure ‘appropriate conservation and efficiency programs’ are in place.

Increased attention to groundwater monitoring will continue into the future.The drought has brought California’s long and troubled history with groundwater management to the fore once again. Agricultural stakeholders across the state have been chewing on the issue through the last few months of drought. A bill by Senator Fran Pavley that would create the statutory framework for a Sustainable Groundwater Management Strategy Act has advanced through its policy committee. The Governor addressed groundwater resources in his January drought declaration, and the Department of Water Resources has just released a report in response to that first drought declaration. That report finds decreased groundwater resources in all areas of the state since spring 2013, and highlights that over two-thirds of High and Medium Priority basins are not monitored by the state program.

The Governor’s second declaration orders an update of the DWR report by November 30th, including updated monitoring of agricultural land fallowing related to the drought. With this most recent order, the Governor has made clear that he intends for improvements in groundwater monitoring and planning to remain high on the agenda moving forward.

Drought assistance to agricultural operation is moving forward.The Governor has fast-tracked the creation of a program at the California Department of Food and Agriculture to provide financial incentives for efficient water irrigation treatment and distribution systems. He recently signed into law an appropriation of $10 million in cap-and-trade revenues towards agricultural water use efficiency projects.

 

Although a series of storms over the past few months have brought some much-needed relief, it is clear that California is still in a dire water crisis. While there are still water stewardship actions to improve efficiency and planning at the individual farm level, the state’s role as overseer of our water resources is even more crucial in times of drought.

Governor Brown’s plan attempts to strike a delicate balance between a variety of pressing interests, and the next few months will reveal where it has succeeded. But this crisis also presents an opportunity. We urge the Governor and Legislature to move beyond emergency declarations toward recognizing the longer-term implications of an historic drought and its implications for a future under climate change.

 

Check out and share the list of Drought Resources on CalCANs website at www.calclimateag.org/drought-resources.

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