Recall Threat Could Stop California from Declaring a Drought

Despite the dry conditions, Gavin Newsom has not yet declared an official drought emergency. Many believe that the recall threat against the governor is preventing the declaration.

(TNS) — Gov. Gavin Newsom stood on a boat ramp at Lake Oroville on Tuesday — a boat ramp that couldn't reach the water because the reservoir was nearly 60 percent empty — and acknowledged what many Californians already know.

"We're in the second year of these drought conditions," he said.

But Newsom, who was in Oroville to sign a bill appropriating $536 million in wildfire-prevention funds, said he isn't ready to declare an official drought emergency, as his predecessor did six years ago. Instead, he promised he can manage the situation without resorting to an emergency declaration, which could help his administration clamp down on water use. "We are on top of this; we are mindful of the urgency," he said.

A drought declaration could be politically fraught for Newsom, who faces a likely recall election later this year. By imposing strict rules on consumption, he could anger pandemic-weary voters, who might bristle if told to scale back on watering their lawns — something that happened during the last drought emergency.

"The recall is on his mind with anything he does," said Mindy Romero, director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the University of Southern California. "I'm not saying it will impact what he does about a drought, but I think it impacts how he talks about the drought."

But if Newsom is reluctant to make a declaration now, some experts say he could actually help himself politically by acting sooner. If an official emergency convinces Californians to conserve water, that would save the governor from having to take more drastic, unpopular steps later, said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at UC San Diego.

"I think everything that this governor does under the cloud of the recall is interpreted as him playing a political game," Kousser said. "I think it's more likely he's playing a policy game here."

Water experts say there are legitimate reasons to avoid declaring a drought emergency. Among other things, declaring an emergency too soon could make it harder to persuade Californians to conserve if the drought drags on for multiple years.

The Democratic governor is hearing from elected officials who want him to declare an emergency now, with some of the loudest voices coming from parched rural California. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has already declared a drought in California, making every farmer in the state eligible for federal disaster relief.

"The metrics, science and data, including those put forward by the Biden administration, indicate we are in an emergency situation," said state Sen. Andreas Borgeas, R-Fresno, who is among a bipartisan group of 11 lawmakers who recently urged him to declare an official drought. "We need a sustainable plan."

Potential criticism of a drought declaration could be on Newsom's mind, Borgeas said.

Recall supporters say they turned in 2.1 million signatures to county elections officials last month. If roughly 1.5 million are verified, that would trigger a special election to ask voters if they want to remove Newsom from office.

Recall supporters have seized on Newsom's sweeping COVID-19 emergency stay-at-home orders, which the governor used to shut down big swaths of the state's economy. Economic conditions have improved as the pandemic has waned, but Newsom's political vulnerability could increase if a drought emergency brings new restrictions on Californians' every day lives.

Mark Keppler, director of the Maddy Institute at Fresno State University, said Newsom risks being accused of overreacting if he declares a drought this year, but also risks being seen as doing too little if water shortages hurt agriculture.

"He's kind of in a Catch-22 situation here," Keppler said.

Officials in Newsom's administration say another dry winter will likely generate a drought emergency declaration next year. For now, Newsom is standing firm.

"We're preparing to do many things as relates to preparing ourselves for the reality of moving into the second year of drought conditions," Newsom said last week, during an appearance in Fresno County to discuss wildfire risks. "As it relates to the specific declaration of emergency, which has all kinds of component parts, we're not prepared to do that at this moment."

An emergency declaration can be a powerful tool. Former Gov. Jerry Brown's declaration in 2015 let the state restrict outdoor watering in urban areas by as much as 36 percent. It gave the state added muscle when it curbed water use by farmers and others with legal rights to draw water from rivers and streams.

Above all, a declaration is considered essential to driving home the message about conservation.

"It focuses in the public mind that we're really in a dry situation," said Kevin O'Brien, a Sacramento lawyer who represents water districts.

At the same time, governors are generally reluctant to declare droughts too early. They want to maximize the declaration's impact in terms of focusing Californians on conservation.

If a drought emergency drags on for years, "customers experience what we call drought fatigue," said Amy Talbot, water efficiency manager at the Sacramento Regional Water Authority.

Jeff Mount, a water expert at the Public Policy Institute of California, said Brown "didn't declare a drought emergency until we were well into it. You want to save it ... for when you really need it."

Conditions still aren't as bad as they were when Brown issued the drought declaration in April 2015. At the time, the snowpack across the Sierra Nevada was 95 percent below normal — and Brown, in an image that became emblematic of the drought, made the declaration while walking through a bone-dry meadow near Echo Summit where the state conducts its monthly snow surveys.

Today, the Sierra snowpack — a crucial piece of the state's summer and fall water supply — is 60 percent below normal.

"Hydrologically things are pretty bad. That doesn't mean that it's drought emergency bad," said Tim Quinn, a visiting fellow at Stanford's Water in the West program and former head of the Association of California Water Agencies.

Still, pressure is already building in rural areas. The federal Bureau of Reclamation has said it can't guarantee any water deliveries this year for Central Valley Project customers, most of whom are farm irrigation districts. It's likely that farmers throughout the Valley will have to idle some of their land this year, and rural communities could see their municipal supplies come under stress, Mount said.

Newsom said he's in touch with federal officials and insisted his administration doesn't need a drought declaration to carry out most of it drought-related duties.

For instance, the State Water Resources Control Board has warned tens of thousands of farmers and other water users that their rights to pull water out of rivers and streams could be curtailed this year — an action that can be taken without a drought declaration, said board chairman Joaquin Esquival. He said, however, that a drought declaration would streamline the process for enforcing those curtailment orders.

The current head of the water agencies' association, Dave Eggerton, said conditions vary greatly across the state, making a statewide drought declaration "at this point premature." Most large cities "have a fairly robust supply right now," Eggerton said.

Some urban areas are taking preventive measures. The city of Calistoga this week declared a "Stage II" drought emergency, calling for cutbacks in lawn watering. More dramatically, the board of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California — which serves 19 million urban residents — authorized its staff to spend up to $44 million to buy water from agencies north of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

In the last drought, which officially ended in 2017, municipal water agencies were ordered to curtail usage by as much as 36 percent, depending on location. Greater Sacramento and other hot, inland areas bore the brunt of the crackdown. Restrictions were ordered on lawn watering, car washing and other outdoor activities. Scofflaws in the city of Sacramento had to go to "drought school" to learn about conservation — or pay a $50 fine.

Even in the absence of a drought declaration, most Californians live under some sort of water restrictions already. Sacramento County residents are supposed to limit their outdoor watering to three days a week. City residents can water twice a week from March to October, and once a week the rest of the year. Other water agencies in the region have looser guidelines about outdoor use.

More broadly, the Legislature enacted a package of laws in 2018 designed to generate long-term household conservation, whether there's a drought or not. Cities are being assigned water "budgets" and could be fined starting in 2027 if they miss their conservation targets.

Newsom and his top advisers won't identify specific thresholds for declaring a drought emergency. But they say they're ready to act quickly.

"Emergency proclamations provide the governor certain powers that he would not have under normal circumstances, and as a result emergency declarations are considered very carefully," said Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot, who accompanied Newsom to Oroville. "As soon as we need additional actions and the consideration of an emergency proclamation to take specific actions we couldn't otherwise take, the governor has asked us to raise those points with him."

©2021 The Sacramento Bee. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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