UPDATE: Gov. Brown to Declare State Drought Emergency

Local cities join call for emergency declaration.

By Nancy Martinez, EGP Staff Writer

Most people take for granted that when they turn on their faucet water will come pouring out, but its likely few of them ever think about how water arrives in their homes, or how the state’s water reservoir levels are doing.

But given California’s record-low rainfall and depleted water reserves, that could soon change.

[UPDATE] (1/17) : Gov. Jerry Brown proclaimed a State of Emergency Friday, telling state officials to prepare for drought conditions and directing state agencies to use less water. The proclamation will have state officials assist farmers and those communities that are economically impacted by the dry conditions. The governor is also directing state agencies to hire more firefighters and create more water conservation awareness.

That’s welcome news to a large number of local and state elected officials across California who have been pressing the governor to make the declaration, citing the impact the lack of rain is already having on agriculture, as well as the potential danger of wildfires and possible water rate hikes due to the growing scarcity of the valuable resource.

Lawmakers and non-profit agencies are stressing that the state is dealing with a “mega drought” that may lead to tighter water restrictions on residential and other uses.


Lake Castaic, pictured, is one of the many resevoirs throughout the state experiencing low levels of water after a third “dry” season. (California Department of Water Resources)

Lake Castaic, pictured, is one of the many resevoirs throughout the state experiencing low levels of water after a third “dry” season. (California Department of Water Resources)

They are concerned that the federal government, which has a big say in how the state’s water resources are allocated, could clamp down even more when snowpack levels are taken again in February.

Last week, the Los Angeles County Independent Cities Association, (ICA), which includes nearly 50 local cities, including Los Angeles, Montebello, Bell Gardens, Commerce, Vernon and Monterey Park, voted unanimously to ask the governor to declare a state of drought in California.

Aubrey J.D. Bettencourt is the Executive Director for the California Water Alliance, a nonprofit, non-partisan organization dedicated to advocating ways to relieve the water emergency afflicting the state. She told EGP California is experiencing its third “dry” year in a row.

“It’s not just [about] low rainfall, it’s that reservoirs levels are so low,” the lowest since the 1970s, she added.

Bettencourt says the state is facing many challenges with its water supply and how the water system is managed. She told EGP the state’s water system infrastructure is in need of large-scale improvement, but emphasized that all the current talk about water bonds and building tunnels to improve the Delta is about changes that will take 30 or so years to realize, and does nothing to help the current water crisis or improve how the system is managed today.

On Monday, the Fresno Bee reported Gov. Brown — who also happened to be the state’s governor during California’s 1976-1977 historic drought year — said he would work with farmers who are deeply concerned with major losses to California agriculture. When asked directly if he would declare a drought emergency, Brown said, “we’re getting ready.”

In a letter to the governor last month, Sen. Diane Feinstein urged the governor to declare the drought and to call on President Barack Obama to issue an emergency declaration, which could lead to more water transfers and the relaxation of some state and federal regulations.

The governor said Tuesday the declaration has been delayed because he wants to make sure it will give the state the flexibility to move water around, from areas with more water to those that are facing more critical shortages.

According to the State’s Department of Water Resources, only two of the state’s water reservoirs are currently filled to their historical average. The remaining are at less than half the level needed to deliver drinking water in their respective locations.

What this means for consumers is a reduction of water allocation to cities that could lead to water rate increases and/or rationing.

“Its basic supply and demand,” said Bettencourt. “It could become more expensive for these cities.”

Water companies would either have to pass the increased costs onto their consumers or find other ways to reduce other budget expenses to address the sudden increase in rates. Water rate hikes impact everyone— residents, manufacturers, businesses, and school districts — anyone who uses water in anyway.

Across California, cities like Montebello, South Pasadena and San Diego have already approved water rate increases in response to increases in wholesale water costs. Others like Bell Gardens have yet to do the same.

But not passing on the costs to customers could leave Bell Gardens, with a water system in needed upgrades and 19 years without rate hikes, to have to dig into their reserves or make cuts elsewhere.

Bell Gardens City Manager Phil Wagner told EGP declaration of a drought emergency would not have an “immediate impact” on water rates, citing the reserves from their water provider.

However advocates of the declaration say rate hikes are not the only thing people should be worried about; they should also be concerned that the quality of the water they consume may be negatively affected because the lack of new rain prevents the water stored in the reservoirs from being “recharged” after sitting undisturbed. It leads to the brownish water that Bettencourt compares to the quality of coffee from the bottom of the pot.

She says an emergency drought declaration would not only ensure that safe, clean water is transported throughout the state, but would call on the federal government to create maximum relief that could prevent this situation from happening in the future by instilling the “most relaxed system allowed under the law,” referring to the environmental laws that require a percentage of water to be allocated for wildlife under the Endangered Special Act.

She says “terrible decisions” on what to do with the water that was in the upstream reservoirs, or the surplus from the previous year, are contributing to the heightened problems today,

“If it were to rain we need to be ready to store the excess in our available reservoirs and not just let it [flow out] to the sea,” she said.

Wagner says if a drought is declared, Bell Gardens would have to be “water wise” and educate their residents to help conserve water by following “common sense” rules such as turning off the faucet while brushing teeth and reducing the use of water on lawns and cars.

Bell Gardens Assistant City Manager John E. Oropeza told EGP the city has previously taken steps to conserve water throughout the city. One example is the recycling of water for their golf course and other parks and recreation uses through efficient sprinkler systems.

But Bettencourt says the biggest impact on water conservancy will come from realizing how important the issue is in the first place, and holding elected officials accountable for exploring options to prevent droughts in the future.

The independent cities association’s president, Mario Guerra, told EGP the unanimous vote seeking a drought declaration was a “no brainer.”

“Our water is an economic [issue] both for businesses and cities,” he said.

Representing 48 cities with an estimated seven million residents, Guerra said people will see the impact “really soon” if they don’t begin conserving.

“Residents will see the affects trickle down,” Guerra said.

Bettencourt says the next step is to ensure the governor follows through on the declaration and the federal government is held accountable in making water conservancy and management in California a priority.

“The first six months are so critical in seeing what will happen during the dry season,” she said. “This is crunch time.”

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January 16, 2014  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.


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