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Drought Emergency Ends in California; Here’s What’s Next

Celebrating the end of the drought will be short-lived, as state officials stressed that California continue along its course to improve conservation and efficiency to prepare for future droughts.

Written by Tara Lohan Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Briones Reservoir in Orinda, Calif., was at near capacity when this photo was taken on Jan. 11, 2017. On April 7, Gov. Jerry Brown ended the state’s drought emergency and released a framework for conservation and efficiency improvements.Ben Margot, AP

As Northern California inched closer on Friday to breaking the record for the wettest water year in California’s recorded history, Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order formally declaring the drought emergency over in most of the state.

After a very wet winter, California’s critical April 1 snowpack reading came in at 164 percent of the historical average and the U.S. Drought Monitor showed that less than 8 percent of the state was experiencing some form of drought, a stark change from the same time last year when 90 percent of the state was in drought, much of it extreme.

The governor’s executive order applies to all four counties – Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Tuolumne – where State Water Resources Control Board Chair Felicia Marcus said the drought emergency declaration was important to continue projects in progress to restore drinking water supplies impacted by the drought.

Friday’s executive order, B-40-17, rescinded four previous executive orders related to the drought, but Nancy Vogel, deputy secretary for communications for the California Natural Resources Agency, said the negative effects of California’s drought would linger for a long time, including diminished groundwater, subsidence from overpumping of aquifers and tree mortality.

But she stressed that the drought had also had good effects, such as the development of a legacy of conservation and efficiency – as the state also on Friday released a long-term framework that builds on a May 2016 executive order, B-37-16, Making Water Conservation a California Way of Life.

Drought conditions in California in March 2016 and March 2017. (Water Deeply/US Drought Monitor)

Drought conditions in California in March 2016 and March 2017. (Water Deeply/US Drought Monitor)

Marcus said that California next faced the “less dramatic but no less important work to prepare for the next” drought. This includes developing permanent prohibitions on wasteful water practices like irrigating turf medians and hosing off sidewalks.

Agricultural water suppliers that provide water to more than 10,000 acres (4,047 hectares) will also need to develop annual water budgets that would complement reporting requirements related to the implementation of the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

Ben Chou, policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, called for more leadership from the state on agricultural water issues in the plan. “While we fully support the plan’s proposal to extend water planning requirements to more agricultural water suppliers, it keeps intact nearly all of the draft’s flawed ideas for improving agricultural water efficiency, including a misguided fixation on getting agricultural water districts (which supply irrigation water to farms) to complete complicated water budgets,” Chou wrote. “But even more disappointing, the plan omits specific water-saving practices for suppliers to adopt.”

When it comes to urban water suppliers, they will soon no longer be required to meet mandatory conservation requirements or stress tests for water supply. But the state will be developing new efficiency standards for urban water suppliers to comply with and utilize data that is site specific and related to climate, population, indoor water use, area of outdoor water use, commercial and industrial water use and leaks.

“State agencies will be setting efficiency standards but water suppliers will apply local information to set their targets,” said Kamyar Guivetchi, who manages statewide integrated water management for the Department of Water Resources. “Then they have flexibility to implement the projects they need to meet that target.”

Efficiency is often hailed as one of the cheapest ways to help increase water supply, while at the same time saving energy and money. But it won’t be the only avenue the state is pursuing. Groundwater overdraft remains a huge concern, with some parts of the San Joaquin Valley sinking as much as 28ft (8.5m) in the last century and critical water infrastructure at risk from subsidence.

The plan going forward looks a bit like an “all-of-the-above strategy.”

“If we combine efficiency foremost with tools like recycling, stormwater capture, groundwater management, underground and surface storage, ecosystems thinking and restoration, safe drinking water and more flexibility to enable each drop of water to benefit more than one need, we can face the future far more successfully,” said Marcus.

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