Governor orders state to address drought emergency

Issue Date: March 4, 2009
Kate Campbell

With another dry year under way, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaimed a state of emergency in California last week and laid out a list of immediate actions to address the situation. The moves include several recommended by the California Farm Bureau Federation and other farm and water organizations.

Comparing the current crisis to a major earthquake or a raging wildfire in severity, Schwarzenegger said that even with the recent rainfall, California faces its third consecutive year of drought.

"We must prepare for the worst—a fourth, fifth or even sixth year of drought," he said, noting that last spring was the driest on record and current reservoir levels are at historic lows.

"This drought is having a devastating impact on our people, our communities, our economy and our environment—making this action absolutely necessary," he said.

Under the state of emergency, the governor directed the state Department of Water Resources to expedite water transfers and offer technical assistance to agricultural water suppliers and agricultural water users, including information on managing water supplies to minimize economic impacts and implement efficient water management practices. The order requests that all urban water users immediately increase their water conservation activities to reduce individual water use by 20 percent.

The emergency declaration also calls for implementing short-term efforts to protect water quality or water supply, such as the installation of temporary barriers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta or temporary water supply connections that will increase flexibility for delivering transferred water.

"By acknowledging that the health of communities and farms is linked to a reliable water supply, the governor's actions will help ease job and economic losses due to California's water crisis," said California Farm Bureau Federation President Doug Mosebar. "By requiring all agencies with jurisdiction over water issues to work together to address supply needs immediately, the governor is streamlining assistance to thirsty communities and farms."

Mosebar noted that many family farmers have already let their growing season go, "but many more will welcome this action that recognizes the importance of keeping locally grown commodities in our state—for the benefit of our communities and to ensure food security for all."

The governor's order also directs the state Labor and Workforce Development Agency to assist the labor market in drought-affected areas, including providing job training and financial assistance.

The governor said that by March 30, the Department of Water Resources must provide an updated report on the state's drought conditions and water availability. If emergency conditions persist, Schwarzenegger said he will consider additional steps.

These could include mandatory water rationing and mandatory reductions in water use, reoperation of major reservoirs and additional regulatory relief or permit streamlining as allowed under the Emergency Services Act.

DWR and the Department of Food and Agriculture must also recommend, within 30 days, measures to reduce the economic impacts of the drought, including, but not limited to, water transfers, through-delta emergency transfers, water conservation measures, efficient irrigation practices and improvements to the California Irrigation Management Information System.

Current projections put delta water delivery allocations at zero for agricultural service contractors in the Central Valley Project and 15 percent for the State Water Project.

CVP water allocations could increase to 10 percent for agriculture, if forecasted snowmelt runoff reaches average levels. Settlement or exchange contractors can expect 75 percent allocations, if conditions remain dry, but 100 percent under average runoff amounts.

But the State Water Resources Control Board's Division of Water Rights notified about 7,000 water right holders last week in the Sacramento, San Joaquin and Russian River watersheds, as well as those on the Central Coast and in the Tule Lake watershed, that their water diversions may be curtailed if the drought worsens.

"If you plan to grow crops that will need water beyond the limited supply available, you may find yourself in a very serious dilemma," said Victoria Whitney, deputy director for water rights. "There's a strong possibility your water right will be curtailed due to a lack of surface water or a low priority of right."

She said farmers should look into acquiring a firm, alternate source of water, such as groundwater that does not require a water-right permit, purchasing water from someone who pumps groundwater or who has a storage reservoir or uses recycled wastewater.

Water shortages are no longer just a problem for some areas of the state or sectors of the economy, said General Manager Tom Birmingham of the Westlands Water District in Fresno.

"The crisis is statewide," he said. "The losses to the economy, the environment and our overall quality of life will be enormous. Most important, the problem will not be solved when abundant rains return one day. The problem is our broken water system that can no longer provide a reliable supply to meet California's needs."

In the wake of the governor's drought emergency declaration, Farm Bureau President Mosebar said "the Legislature must now follow suit with a comprehensive, long-term plan that includes new surface water storage facilities and improved water delivery systems as essential strategies, along with water recycling and efficiency."

Two water bond proposals were introduced in the state Legislature last week, one from Sen. Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto, the other from Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter. The senators say their bills, Senate Bill 301 and SB 371, each address the need for financing water supply reliability and environmental restoration programs.

"Farm Bureau is actively involved in discussions with the authors of these proposals and will continue to advocate for new surface storage, as well as area-of-origin water rights protections, and continue to stress the need for a continuous appropriation provision to insure money is actually spent on a comprehensive water supply reliability package," said Danny Merkley, CFBF water resources director.

To view an online video on how communities and farms are being impacted by the California water crisis, go to

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

More Information

Read the governor's drought emergency proclamation

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.