With the cracked, parched bed of Lake Mendocino at his feet, Gov. Gavin Newsom proclaimed a local drought emergency in Mendocino and Sonoma counties on Wednesday, saying the region stood apart from the rest of California due to “acute and dramatic” water-supply woes heading into the driest months of the year.
The declaration marks the most formal step so far in addressing what’s now the second straight year of extremely low rainfall, resulting in record-low levels at this time of year in both Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma. Together, the reservoirs supply drinking and irrigation water to three counties and more than 600,000 North Bay residents.
“This is without precedent,” Newsom said at a news conference on the dusty lake bottom. He noted that where he stood should have been 40 feet of water. Instead, it was in bright, glaring sunshine.
The executive order and drought emergency he signed on that spot is not immediately accompanied by any mandates. But those could be forthcoming as conditions evolve, Newsom signaled.
“I want to be clear, we are gaming everything out,” he said.
More counties are likely to be added to the list with Sonoma and Mendocino, as California braces for its first statewide drought under Newsom and its second since the five-year drought under his predecessor, Jerry Brown.
It is up to the governor to proclaim a statewide drought, and though Newsom stopped short of that move Wednesday, he noted that his announcement outside Ukiah had parallels with orders that Brown had given in early 2013 when similar conditions existed.
Climate change is a driving factor, he said.
“The hots are getting hotter. The dries are getting drier,” he said. “We need to disenthrall ourselves with old ways of managing water supply and distribution.”
His order was intended to make the state and local agencies more nimble as the drought deepens and new conservation measures and tools are needed, he said. It also is aimed to speed funding for water management, conservation and habitat protection efforts.
“The targeted emergency proclamation today will give our state agencies the tools needed to take fairly drastic actions to preserve water for the use of communities and for health and safety purposes,” said Wade Crowfoot, secretary of the state Natural Resources Department. “And specifically, our state Water Resources Control Board has the potential through this executive order to potentially curtail water rights that would normally legally entitle water users to divert from the system. That’s an important power that needs to be used very judiciously.”
In the Russian River basin that feeds into Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma, about 780 entities, including small water districts, vineyards, orchards and other users already have been notified their ability to withdraw water may be reduced or cut off this year, according to the state water board.
Newsom said he would rely on drought advisers who have stayed on from the Brown administration as well as what other states are doing to confront similar conditions across the American West.
But he said his actions in California would take the drought region by region, given complex water systems that in some places rely heavily on snow pack, or on sprawling water systems like those that run through the Central Valley and to cities in Southern California.
The Russian River system is of particular concern at this point, Crowfoot said, because it is not connected to wider state and federal networks and does not benefit from snowmelt.
Though connected through the Potter Valley Power Plant to the Eel River and two reservoirs there, the Russian River watershed “really relies on precipitation falling in this watershed,” Crowfoot said.
“Lake Mendocino,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, “is the canary in the coal mine with regard to California’s drought.”
Some degree of drought is present throughout California, Newsom acknowledged though he hedged when he was asked where conditions were worse, noting that such calls can be political. Varying circumstances across the state do not warrant “a one-size fits all” approach, he said.
“We are taking a sequential approach. We are taking a targeted approach, and we are taking an approach based on actual conditions on the ground,” he said.
Those include 2-year rainfall totals in Santa Rosa that are about half what they should be and in Ukiah are comparatively lower, leaving Lake Mendocino at less than 44% of its storage capacity. Lake Sonoma is at about 62%.