Drought statistics updated last week show that dry conditions continue to worsen throughout California, with the percentage of the state experiencing the second-highest level of drought up 20 percent from two weeks ago.
The U.S. Drought Monitor shows that as of May 4 about 73 percent of the state is suffering from the extreme drought, up from 53 percent the week prior. The monitor focuses on broadscale conditions and drought data is communicated using a five-level system: abnormally dry, moderate drought, severe drought, extreme drought and exceptional drought. Just over five percent of the state has experienced exceptional drought conditions over the last two weeks.
Stanislaus County is experiencing extreme drought for the first time since 2017, and the last time the county was in extreme drought was in April 2016.
The drought conditions persist as Turlock Irrigation District records a water year that is just 53 percent of average for the date — and the second-straight year of dry conditions in the region. The Tuolumne River Watershed received less than an inch of rainfall in April, while the historical average for the month is normally several inches.
The low precipitation numbers are comparable to other historically-dry years recorded by TID, 1977 and 2013, which both were the second years of separate, prolonged droughts. The lack of rainfall has contributed to a significantly below average snowpack as well; as of Friday, the Central Sierra snowpack was 14 percent of normal for the date, while the statewide snowpack sits at just 10 percent.
Governor Gavin Newsom answered the pleas of Central Valley legislators on Monday by expanding the state’s emergency drought declaration to a total of 41 counties, including Stanislaus.
Counties in the Klamath River, Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and Tulare Lake Watershed regions are now under a drought state of emergency, representing 30% of the state’s population. Climate change-induced early warm temperatures and extremely dry soils have further depleted the expected runoff water from the Sierra-Cascade snowpack, resulting in historic and unanticipated reductions in the amount of water flowing to major reservoirs, especially in these three areas.
Statistics released by the U.S. Drought Monitor last Thursday showed that 73% of the state is suffering from extreme drought, with Stanislaus County reaching the second-highest drought level for the first time since 2017.
The Governor’s proclamation directs the State Water Board to consider modifying requirements for reservoir releases and diversion limitations to conserve water upstream later in the year to maintain water supply, improve water quality and protect cold water pools for salmon and steelhead. The state of emergency also enables flexibility in regulatory requirements and procurement processes to mitigate drought impacts and directs state water officials to expedite the review and processing of voluntary transfers of water from one water right holder to another, enabling available water to flow where it is needed most.
“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. “We’re working with local officials and other partners to protect public health and safety and the environment, and call on all Californians to help meet this challenge by stepping up their efforts to save water.”
In April, Newsom signed an emergency proclamation directing state agencies to take immediate action to bolster drought resilience across the state and declaring a state of emergency in Mendocino and Sonoma counties due to severe drought conditions in the Russian River Watershed.
The move was criticized by local legislators like State Senator and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Andreas Borgeas, who represents Turlock and said the original proclamation skipped over Central Valley counties struggling due to a lack of water. He and a group of largely bipartisan lawmakers have been pushing for the Governor to declare a larger emergency since March.
The counties of Fresno, Madera, Tulare, Kings and San Joaquin have all formally declared local emergencies.
“Our bipartisan coalition, and the five counties that declared local emergencies, are cautiously grateful that the Governor has declared a state of emergency. We respectfully caution the administration, and the divisions of the state executing this declaration, that these emergency policies not be poisoned with divisive provisions or unnecessarily inflate the authority of bureaucratic agencies, and that it should be tailored to our pressing agricultural needs,” Borgeas said in a statement. “More time will be needed to properly examine and understand the implications of the thirteen provisions of the declaration released just today.”