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Reaction Split on Gov. Brown's Newest Drought Proclamation

Dried-out California: hills above the Sacramento Valley | Photo: Eric Leslie/Flickr/Creative Commons License

California Governor Jerry Brown raised the stakes in the state's response to the ongoing drought Friday, and reaction to the move from environmentalists is decidedly mixed.

The new declaration increases the state's exemptions from environmental law for water managers and others contending with the drought. The proclamation, which builds on Brown's initial drought declaration in January, also strengthens requirements for water conservation and prevents homeowners' associations from fining residents who let their lawns die.

"I call on every city, every community, every Californian to conserve water in every way possible," Brown said in a statement. "The driest months are still to come in California and extreme drought conditions will get worse."

Though a few strong storms have washed over the state since the January drought declaration, with road travel over the Sierra Nevada blocked by blizzards as late as this weekend, the state's snowpack contains just 16 percent of the water content found in the mountains in a "normal" year.

As was the case with January's initial drought declaration, Friday's Executive Order -- which the Governor issued at an environmental event in Los Angeles -- grants exemptions from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and other environmental law for large water sales or transfers, as well as new wastewater reuse projects. That's earned the new declaration some cautious criticism from mainstream environmental groups.

"The danger is the bad precedent this sets for waiving environmental protections," the Planning and Conservation League's Jonas Minton told Matt Weiser at the Sacramento Bee. "In this dry year, the limitation is not environmental protection. It's the lack of water throughout California."

Friday's Executive Order does include some increased environmental protection, most notably by way of directives to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to monitor winter-run Chinook salmon as they contend with lower water levels in the Sacramento River. The order also authorizes projects in wildlife habitat to help special status species weather the drought.

Though fisheries advocates lauded the order that CDFW monitor the Sacramento's winter-run Chinook, they pointed out that there's more to the salmon in California than that one run.

"Salmon communities are heartened to see the governor calling for special measures to protect winter run salmon," Golden Gate Salmon Association's executive director John McManus told ReWild. "All of California's salmon runs are being harmed by the drought including the commercially valuable fall run. Reducing Delta pumping between now and mid June would help our salmon runs a lot."

Another aspect of the Executive Order that's sure to cause discussion as it's implemented is a directive that the state's Department of Water Resources pay closer attention to the state's groundwater reserves, including developing new maps of groundwater depletion and resulting land subsidence.

What's that mean in English? As deliveries from the state's reservoirs are cut, many water users, especially farmers in the San Joaquin Valley, increasingly turn to water wells for their irrigation needs. Pumping groundwater faster than the aquifer is replenished will deplete that aquifer. The land above depleted aquifers will often sink, a process called "subsidence," because the pumping opens up empty spaces in the deep soil that then collapse.

California conducts virtually no regulation of groundwater use, and the perceived right to pump groundwater is fiercely defended by ag interests in the San Joaquin Valley and elsewhere in the state. But there's a public cost: aside from the environmental effects of removing water from the state's aquifers, land subsidence buckles highways, pipelines, and other crucial infrastructure. According to hydrologist Michelle Sneed with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) featured in this short video by J.C. Myers, groundwater levels in some parts of the Central Valley are dropping by as much as 100 feet a year, causing record land subsidence of a foot a year in the northern San Joaquin Valley.

Subsidence like that can even damage the expensive, publicly funded aqueducts that bring farmers surface water in wetter years.

One more provision of Friday's order that will likely prove controversial: the Governor, cognizant of the increased risk of wildfire in a drought year, has exempted some tree removal and "brush clearing" projects intended to increase fire safety from requirements that those projects first be reported to CalFIRE.

The reasons that reporting requirement exists in the first place include the fact that logging and brush clearing operations can themselves spark fires, whether during operations due to electrical sparks or vehicle engines igniting bone-dry plant fuel, but also as a result of improper disposal of cut brush or logging projects' "slash piles."

There's also the fact that the safety problem isn't so much the vegetation catching fire as what we've chosen to build in and among that vegetation.

"Once again there is an almost exclusive focus on blaming the natural environment for fire risk," California Chaparral Institute director Richard Halsey told ReWild, "when science has clearly shown that the most effective way to protect homes and lives from wildfire is by focusing on fire hardening communities themselves. Homes continue to burn mostly because they are flammable, not because of nearby natural vegetation."

Brown's order does offer some directives for those of us Californians who don't have crop fields or acres of chaparral to manage. We've all been called on to reduce our water consumption by 20 percent this year, with specific suggestions that may become mandatory depending on how well we comply. They include limiting lawn and other landscape irrigation to twice a week, and using a broom rather than a hose to clean driveways and sidewalks.

Restaurants and other hospitality businesses are being urged to serve drinking water only on demand, an almost purely symbolic move: if every single one of California's 38 million residents was served an unwanted 8 ounce glass of drinking water, that would waste 2.4 million gallons of water, or 7.2 acre-feet. That may sound like a lot, but it's about a millionth of what the Central Valley Project delivers in a typical year.

Then again, if Californians are still using garden hoses to sweep dust off their driveways, we can probably use that little reminder at the restaurant table that every drop counts.

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