Editorial: Yes, it’s a drought and it’s serious

January 8, 2014 

The governor is going to declare a drought emergency within the next three weeks. That’s news, but it’s not unexpected.

We just closed the book on the driest year in history. Merced, for instance, had only 1.92 inches of rain in 2013 – less than half of what fell in the previous record-setting dry year, 2007 (4.2 inches). Modesto didn’t set a time record, but you have to go back 116 years to find a season so dry. Modesto Irrigation District showed we had 5.21 inches, which was only a little more than the 4.28 inches that fell in 1898. San Francisco, Los Angeles and the rain gauges at our biggest reservoir, Shasta Dam, all had similar results. Nearly a third of the state is reporting “extreme drought” and the snowpack is only 20 percent of normal for this time of year.

Tuesday, the director of the Department of Water Resources told an auditorium full of water agency representatives across the state that a proclamation would be delivered before Feb. 1. “It’s just a question of what we put in it, and we’re working on that now,” said Mark Cowin. A prolamation from Gov. Jerry Brown could provide regulatory waivers, allowing agencies that have water to send it to agencies that don’t. The practical impact of that would be to bypass the 48-page manual on making a district-to-district transfer.

It will be a moot point if none of the water districts has water to spare.

“We’re in a deep hole,” said Paul Fujitani, who manages the Central Valley Project for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. He said there was a 50-50 chance that flows out of Shasta Dam could be restricted. And that could have a real impact on growers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. Westlands Water District’s Jason Peltier predicted that 600 growers would double their fallowed acres to 500,000 this year as they face getting zero water from the CVP. Cuts from the CVP will affect growers from Patterson to Firebaugh.

State Water Resources Control Board director Tom Howard said flow standards set for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta could be waived.

What might that look like around here? It’s far too soon to say. But as fields go fallow, there will be less work for farmhands. Crops will suffer and so will our ag-dependent economy.

Such dire news means everyone will face restrictions – including districts such as Turlock and Modesto who have held water rights since before 1914.

“This situation concerns me more than any I have seen,” said South San Joaquin Irrigation District general manager Jeff Shields, who wrote an op-ed for us that appears on the facing page. Shields, whose district serves Escalon, Ripon and Manteca, said he spoke to the manager of a local food bank who was worried that he would get less food just as demand goes up. And he noted there could be an increase in dust, making it harder to breathe. As reservoir levels fall, it won’t be much fun to go boating or swimming in the lakes – and the boat ramps could be miles from the water.

What do we do?

Well, we don’t wait for the governor. If you don’t have a brick in your toilet tank, put one in. If you’re already watering your lawn, cut back to once a week. If anything leaks, fix it. If you’re religous, you could follow the advice of our region’s Catholic bishops and pray for rain.

Our lack of water is already a very serious situation that one or two downpours won’t fix. We’re glad the governor is going to act. But just to hedge our bets, we might want to follow the example of the bishops, too.

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