SAN FRANCISCO — California’s drought conditions might normally prompt calls for shorter showers and shutting off sprinklers.
But Californians are in no mood to hear it after a year of pandemic deprivation. Especially from Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is facing an almost certain recall election after imposing multiple rounds of business closures and constantly telling residents to stay home.
"The governor’s in a very tricky situation," said Darry Sragow, a longtime California Democratic strategist. While Newsom may be considering drought controls, "I’m sure he’s hearing voices telling him that Californians can only tolerate so much pain and suffering."
A disappointing winter has left California’s water supplies at half of average levels. Fights over water are perpetual in California, waxing and waning alongside supplies, and memories are fresh of the worst drought in California’s recorded history that stretched from 2012-16. The development of a new drought promises to reinflame tensions between farmers, cities and environmentalists, with Newsom caught in the middle.
California is particularly parched because 2020 was not only dry, but extremely hot. Experts think the state is about where it was in 2014, when former Gov. Jerry Brown asked Californians to reduce their water use by 20 percent. "That’s grim," said Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center. "The alarm bells are ringing."
State and federal water officials on Tuesday cut the projected amount of water they plan to send farmers and cities, the latest sign that California is entering another concerning dry spell. The new drought comes on the heels of several years of record wildfire seasons, which in turn were fueled by the last drought. It’s just the latest climate change-amplified natural disaster to confront Newsom.
Two states over, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox declared an official drought last week and urged residents to conserve. California’s situation isn’t as bad, but it’s getting there. State regulators on Monday warned water users they could face supply restrictions this summer and recommended farmers think about cutting back on irrigated crops or reducing their herd size.
"We are very, very mindful of the opportunities and challenges this places on the state," Newsom said last week when asked by POLITICO about the drought. He said more "details in terms of messaging" are in the works, but said it would likely take another year of dry conditions before residential customers would see statewide cutbacks.
Governors don’t make drought declarations lightly. Former Natural Resources Secretary John Laird said Brown interrogated him about the state’s water outlook leading up to the 2014 declaration. The next year, Brown issued an unprecedented order for cities and towns to cut usage by 25 percent.
"He had to have the credibility and take the risk of asking people to conserve," Laird said. "If it doesn’t rain between now and May 1, then their facts are really in evidence. That’s the time it’s like, ‘Batten down the hatches, here we go.’"
Balancing the competing demands of cities, farms and the environment is a political highwire act even without a drought. Skirmishes at state and federal agencies have already begun: Commercial fishing groups and environmentalists warned last month they may go to court to prevent the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation from sending more Central Valley Project water to farmers at the expense of fish.
The groups fear a repeat of 2014 and 2015, when endangered salmon died en masse because there wasn’t enough cold water stored behind the Shasta and Oroville Dams, and are asking the water board to intervene with Reclamation. "We’re going for a repeat of ’14-’15 because they just refuse to plan for droughts," said Doug Obegi, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Agricultural interests are also looking for Newsom to get more involved. "It would be good for him personally to begin to take on the concern we have for this dry year," said Thad Bettner, general manager of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, where rice farmers are planning to fallow about 15 percent of their land due to projected cuts from the Central Valley Project.
Newsom put out a "water resilience portfolio" last year that includes 142 policies to improve water supply, including conservation, water recycling and groundwater storage. While welcome, it’s "a laundry list of priorities with no priorities," Mount said.
"There’s a lot a governor can do to frame the way we should be looking at our times," said Felicia Marcus, the former chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, which regulates water quality. "I think it’s not too early to play the leadership role, and then people can argue about which actual things you need to do, but at bottom you need to be prepared to avoid the mistakes of the last drought."
Under Brown, the state put first-ever limits on agricultural groundwater pumping and started requiring agencies to report their water use in more detail. And residential use is still about 16 percent lower than it was before the last drought thanks to Brown’s conservation order.
California has also paid greater attention to rural residents who lost clean drinking water in the last drought as their wells dried up or grew polluted. Newsom found money to improve drinking water quality in 2019 and made permanent a program to truck water to communities.
But the drought could cause more wells to go dry, and could hinder talks over water quality standards in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where environmentalists, farmers and urban water districts have feuded for years. Newsom initially tried to broker a deal by siding with agricultural interests but sued the Trump administration last year, alleging insufficient protections for endangered fish.
A recall would complicate Newsom’s path on water, just as it threatens to do on other wedge issues that could crop up during the campaign.
"Gov. Newsom’s going to have a choice," said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, an advocacy group that includes environmentalists, fishing interests and local farmers around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the state’s main water source. "He can protect public health or he can allow drought measures to send that water for big industrial agriculture."
Some suppliers that rely heavily on local rainfall have already started feeling the crunch. Marin Municipal Water District, where supplies are lower than they were at this point in 2014, called last month for customers to voluntarily cut their water use by 20 percent. The district is projecting the reduction in sales and added expenses will cost $12.5 million this year, which comes on top of losses from extending credit to customers who have fallen behind on their bills during the pandemic.
The district is offering a larger range of incentives than it did during the last drought, including rebates to replace low-efficiency appliances, install graywater irrigation systems and plant drought-tolerant landscaping. Newsom can help by emphasizing the need to conserve and providing more money, said Cynthia Koehler, the district’s board president.
"I don’t have any criticism of where the governor is," Koehler said. "To me, the more important question is where is he going to be?"
Read more: politico.com