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California Expands Drought Emergency To Large Swath Of State

Gov. Gavin Newsom announcing drought emergency in Mendocino and Sonoma counties, April 21, 2021.
Office of the Governor of California
Gov. Gavin Newsom announcing drought emergency in Mendocino and Sonoma counties, April 21, 2021.

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday expanded a drought emergency declaration to a large swath of the nation's most populated state amid “acute water supply shortages" in northern and central parts of California.

The declaration now covers 41 of 58 counties, covering 30% of California's nearly 40 million people. The U.S. Drought Monitor shows most of the state and the American West is in extensive drought just a few years after California emerged from a punishing multiyear dry spell.

Officials fear an extraordinarily dry spring presages a wildfire season like last year, when flames burned a record 6,562 square miles.


The expansion comes as Newsom prepares to propose more spending on both short- and long-term responses to dry conditions. He was set to release details during a visit to Merced County, in the agricultural Central Valley south of Sacramento.

The Democratic governor last month had declared an emergency in just two counties north of San Francisco — Mendocino and Sonoma.

The expanded declaration includes the counties in the Klamath River, Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and Tulare Lake watersheds across much of the northern and central parts of the state.

The Sierra Nevada snowpack, which provides about a third of the state’s water, was at just 59% of average on April 1, when it is normally at its peak.

This year is unique because of extraordinarily warm temperatures in April and early May, the Newsom administration said. That led to quick melting of the Sierra Nevada snowpack in the waterways that feed the Sacramento River, which in turn supplies much of the state’s summer water supply.


The problem was worse because much of the snow seeped into the ground instead of flowing into rivers and reservoirs, the administration said.

The warmer temperatures also caused water users to draw more water more quickly than even in other drought years, the administration said, leaving the reservoirs extremely low for farmers, fish and wildlife that depend on them.

That all reduced the state’s water supplies by as much as what would supply up to 1 million households for a year, officials said.

“It’s time for Californians to pull together once again to save water,” California Natural Resources Agency Secretary Wade Crowfoot said in a statement.

He urged residents to limit their use, whether by limiting outdoor watering, checking for leaks, or taking shorter showers and turning off the water when washing dishes or brushing teeth.

Newsom’s declaration directs the State Water Board to consider changing the rules for reservoir releases and water diversions to keep more water upstream later this year to maintain more water supply, improve water quality and protect cold water pools for salmon and steelhead.

The declaration also allows more flexibility in regulations and contracting to respond to the drought, while speeding voluntary transfers of water between owners.

Newsom said he also wants lawmakers to spend more in the next fiscal year to both respond to the drought and build the state’s long-term water supply.

The governor is spending the week previewing highlights of the revised budget he will present to state lawmakers Friday for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Earlier Monday in the San Francisco Bay Area, Newsom proposed tax rebates of up to $1,100 for millions of lower- and middle-income Californians, one leg of a pandemic recovery plan made possible by an eye-popping $75 billion budget surplus.

The barnstorming comes as Newsom faces a fall recall election driven in large part by frustration over his handling of the pandemic, though he noted that he also previewed his budget proposals in the past when he wasn’t facing a recall.

The governor’s fellow Democrats, who control the Legislature, have until June 15 to pass a spending plan.