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Governor’s Drought Declaration On Jan. 17 Comes “Just In Time”

Published: March 17, 2014

Namika Raby says Gov. Jerry Brown’s drought emergency declaration on Jan. 17 came just in time to help those who need it the most.

“The drought emergency declaration by the governor means that people—and this affects mostly the Northern California farmers—can get the drought relief they need,” said CSULB Anthropology Department’s Raby. “It allows the release of water from dams. We also have water transfer agreements with water banks because even though we as a whole state are in drought mode, some parts are more affected that others, and a drought declaration will allow flexible water transfer within legal restrictions, and the governor has the right to do that.”

Brown’s mid-January announcement came as no surprise, what with California having received little rain over the past three years, leaving some reservoirs and rivers at historically low levels. The National Weather Service predicts that statewide rainfall amounts during the next three months will remain below normal, so there looks to be no immediate or substantial relief on the horizon. What the emergency proclamation does however, is give state water officials more flexibility to manage supplies throughout California under drought conditions.

According to Raby, this current drought is the 29th worst in the 183 years of recorded history in California. A recent survey of the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains found the state’s water reserves to be at just 20 percent of normal levels and reports have declared 2013 was the driest year in the state’s history.

“The last drought that was this bad was in 1977,” said Raby, “and Gov. Brown was in office at that time too, which is an interesting coincidence.”

The Los Angeles area received just under four inches of rain in all of 2013, approximately one-fifth of its yearly average, but even so Raby noted that Southern California should be okay through 2015 because it has stored capacity using various local reservoirs, groundwater, and water from the Colorado on reserve.

The drought clearly threatens California’s nearly $45 billion agricultural industry that produces almost half of all the fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in the United States. In addition, residents and businesses are likely to notice a rise in the price of agricultural products, as well as increases in water rates and energy costs.

“As a state, California has one of the largest economies in the world, so the economic implications are there and are real, as well as the impact on the environmental and people side of things,” said Raby. “I would say most of the concerns are with the agricultural sector in Northern California. They are the ones mostly affected because of the drought.”

Raby said there is a misconception that farms are these mega-farms and huge businesses, but her own research in the Imperial Valley shows that is not always the case.

“I’ve talked with people who have done three generations of farming on small farms and they just don’t know how to keep on doing this,” she said. “So, this declaration of drought will allow them to benefit from what water services the state has. Once a drought emergency is declared they can get what they need.”

The day before Brown’s official declaration, hundreds of individuals from the Central Valley joined state lawmakers on the steps of the Capitol in Sacramento to urge the governor to take action.

“Today, I’m declaring a drought emergency in the state of California because we’re facing perhaps the worst drought that California has ever seen since records began being kept about a hundred years ago,” said Brown during the Jan. 17 press event declaring the drought. “We are in an unprecedented, very serious situation and people should pause and reflect on how dependent we are on the rain, on nature and one another. We can’t make it rain, but we can be much better prepared for the terrible consequences that drought now threatens.” Brown called for a 20 percent cutback in water usage and did not rule out mandatory conservation measures later.

Farmers in Northern California are the most affected, with agriculture water use typically going up to 52 percent in dry years as opposed to 28 percent in wet years, noted Raby. “Still,” she added, “it really affects everyone throughout the entire state because the state’s population has increased by 75 percent since the 70s drought, and the majority of this population is in Southern California; the drought will impact other uses of water.

“If the drought conditions continue on farms there will not be enough water to produce crops as planned,” she continued. “The harvest will be lower, production will go down and costs for products will go up, so a drought of this level can effect everybody economically. A drought could drive up food prices for everybody. We grow almonds, pistachios, rice and cotton and these crops need a lot of water. These growers will fight with each other for the water, and compete with urban, domestic, and environmental demands on the state’s water supply, so the variable is how much local storage you have and how much water can be transferred and purchased.”