Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a drought in Mendocino and Sonoma counties on Wednesday. The lengthy emergency proclamation covers the Russian River watershed, the most impacted part of the state. Saying he was “mindful of the rhetoric when it comes to droughts,” Newsom called the executive order a targeted approach, while his water officials described it as “a very locally driven process.”
Sen. Mike McGuire, whose district falls within the region, praised the decision: “We need to mobilize to help the Golden State's hardworking farmers and ranchers and farmworkers, along with businesses and endangered species.”
The order charges CDFA with providing technical assistance on water conservation to farmers and analyzing the potential economic impacts of the drought on agriculture.
State Water Board Chair Joaquin Esquivel added an important caveat: “If conditions continue to find themselves so extreme, and we still haven't found that voluntary solution on the local watershed to balance out these needs, we need to take quick action.”
Water rights: Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot explained that the water board now has the potential “to curtail water rights that would normally legally entitle water users to divert from the system.” Crowfoot added: “That's an important power that needs to be used very judiciously.”
Esquivel clarified that this would apply to senior water rights holders, which created “some of the principal challenges we had in the last drought.”
Crowfoot also said to expect the Department of Fish and Wildlife “to be very active during this drought period.” They will be monitoring endangered fish populations “and taking emergency quick action to protect those animals.”
Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth pointed out that the warm weather has dropped the overall Sierra snowpack from 73% a couple weeks ago to just 30% of average today, with southern parts as low as 16%.
At the federal level, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland are forming an interagency working group to address the needs of communities hurt by drought.
“The Working Group also will explore opportunities to improve our nation’s resilience to droughts and other severe climate impacts that are upending Americans' lives and economic livelihoods," said the statement.
Ag groups, meanwhile, are worried that the likely recall is impacting drought decisions.
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Jackson Gualco, president of the ag lobbying firm The Gualco Group, said that this year “everything that's being discussed, both within the administration and legislatively, is going to be looked at through the prism of a recall.” He was speaking at a policy event for the California Association of Winegrape Growers (CAWG) on Wednesday.
The impending recall of Gov. Gray Davis in 2003, explained Gualco, led to “aberrant behavior” like supporting more pro-labor legislation and bumping up public sector pensions.
Gualco suggested the recall could impact Newsom’s decisions on the drought. Granting emergency authority to the water board has “the potential for disrupting the centuries-old way that we apportion water rights in California, which will once again be on the table,” he said.
For the GOP take, Senate Republican Leader Scott Wilk said in a statement that the governor’s regional declaration covering California’s wine country would “only serve his French Laundry wine and cheese crowd.”
“Is the threat of a recall holding him back from helping our food producers and the rest of the state?” asked Wilk.
Fresno Republican Sen. Andreas Borgeas, meanwhile, continued his push for Newsom to declare a statewide emergency. At the CAWG event, Borgeas said supervisors from the eight Central Valley counties have now joined the effort.