Drought declared in Tulare County

Reggie Ellis

Current water year is the third driest on record stirring fears that wells will go dry, farmland will be fallowed and wildfires will scorch parched earth

TULARE COUNTY – This weekend’s steady rainfall should have capped off what was projected to be a wet winter and instead was just the latest sign of an impending drought.

Yesterday, the Tulare County Board of Supervisors was expected to approve a “Local Emergency due to severe drought conditions” on the consent calendar but the meeting was held after press time. The resolution proclaims “that a local emergency now exists throughout said Tulare County due to drought which has created conditions of disaster and extreme peril to the safety of persons and property within the county, and that such conditions are or are likely to be beyond the control of the services, personnel, equipment, and/or facilities of this county, thus requiring the combined forces of other political subdivisions to combat.”

The staff report says the current water year, which began on Oct. 1, 2020, is the third driest on record to date and is now predicted to become the driest barring significant rainfall during the dry summer months leading to the end of the water year on Sept. 30, 2021. February 2021 was the 10th driest February in the last 127 years and the second driest 12-month period on record as February rainfall was 3.62 inches below normal and the last 12 months was 4.74 inches below normal rainfall, according to the National Weather Service (NWS) in Hanford. NWS noted there were low flows in Central Valley’s rivers and streams despite rapid snowmelt in recent weeks, leaving water levels in major reservoirs at just 29% of normal.

“Although a winter-like storm will replenish the Sierra snowpack … the water that’s delivered into the Golden State will barely make a dent in the otherwise large precipitation deficit,” NWS stated. “This storm system will most likely be the last one of the season.”

A week earlier, Supervisor Amy Shuklian joined the board of supervisor chairs in Fresno, Kings, Kern, Madera, Merced, San Joaquin and Stanislaus Counties in signing a letter requesting Gov. Gavin Newsom to declare a statewide emergency due to drought and begin taking immediate steps to address the issue. Those steps include providing agencies more flexibility to work together to adapt to this challenging situation, to minimize red tape for water transfers, and allow state agencies to modify certain reservoir release standards to allow for more water to go to farms and communities throughout the state.

On April 22, the California Drought Monitor, showed an extreme drought classification of D3 over much of Tulare County, the foothills and higher elevations of Fresno County and the eastern third of Kern County. Nearly all of Tulare County, about 94.51% of its geography but 100% of its residents, is listed as being in or affected by the extreme drought designation, as of press time. The designation means there is not enough water for agriculture, drinking water, wildlife and hydroelectric infrastructure.

A spokesperson for the California Cattlemen`s Association claimed that ranchers are facing the most severe conditions in decades, worse than the drought years from 2014 to 2016. Furthermore, as the drought intensifies in the weeks and months ahead, cattle ranchers may be forced to reduce the size of their herds due to the reduction of feed and the increasing cost of hay. Water allocations for growers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley have been reduced to only 20% of their normal allotment through the Summer months.

“It’s a troublesome sign that west side growers have been pumping more water from wells to irrigate their farmland,” NWS stated.

The April 19 letter states California counties, such as those in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, produce half of the nation’s livestock and produce products, essential to feeding the world and to the local economies. The supervisors said agriculture experts are estimating as many as one million acres of farmland will be fallowed in the next two to three decades as a result of reduced ground and surface water availability.

“A drought will expedite this loss in productivity and result in thousands of lost jobs,” the letter states.

State to wait

The governor issued an Emergency Proclamation for Drought in Mendocino and Sonoma counties on April 21. The move could pave the way for other counties to be added as the state moves deeper into drought, but state and federal lawmakers representing the Central Valley were frustrated with the order’s narrow focus.

On April 22, California’s Republican Congressional delegation—including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Congressmen David Valadao and Devin Nunes—issued the following statement: “The Central Valley is responsible for putting food on the table for the rest of the nation, and farmers and ranchers simply cannot grow the food we need without reliable access to water. Our local economies are crippled by water scarcity, and by ignoring the needs of the Central Valley, the lack of action by Governor Newsom in addressing this crisis is a failure to lead.”

In early March 2021, U.S. Department of Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack designated 50 of the 58 (including Mariposa, Madera, Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Kern) counties as primary natural disaster areas due to the drought. This designation provides relief for farm operators in the form of emergency relief loans, so long as they qualify, for up to eight months after the designation is made. Vilsack followed up the designation with an April 8 statement issued jointly with U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, “The Departments of the Interior and Agriculture recognize the urgency of this crisis and its impacts on farmers, Tribes, and communities, and are committed to an all-hands-on-deck approach that both minimizes the impacts of the drought and develops a long-term plan to facilitate conservation and economic growth … We are also committed to robust and continued engagement with state, local, and Tribal governments to develop longer term measures to respond to climate change and improve water security.”

The federal concerns were echoed by state legislators representing the area as well. Senator Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield) said the governor needed to realize the food security of Valley residents depends on the ability of farmers to irrigate their crops and continue producing food.

“As a representative of the largest food-producing region in the entire world, I urge the governor to prioritize our food security, declare a state of emergency not just for two counties but for the entire state and deliver more water to our farmlands and communities,” Grove said. “Californians deserve better.”

Initial signs of the drought were confirmed late last month when both the Department of Water Resources (DWR) and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation adjusted the 2021 allocation amounts for cities and farmers. DWR, which operates the State Water Project, decreased its original allocation from 10 percent to five percent, while Reclamation reduced its initial allocation from 20% of class 1 water and 5% of class 2 water to 5% and 0%, respectively. DWR also pointed out reservoir conditions all over the state are below their historical average. Millerton Lake that feeds the Friant-Kern Canal was at 59% of average as of Monday.

“Coupled with reduced allocations of surface water from the Central Valley Project and State Water Project, and below-average reservoir levels and snowpack both locally and across the State, local drought conditions are likely to worsen and become an emergency that endangers public health and safety within Tulare County,” NWS stated.

Not so well

Tulare County is also one of the areas in the state most vulnerable to social impacts of drought. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ranks Tulare County as having the highest score on its Social Vulnerability Index, which uses 15 U.S. census variables (including poverty, lack of vehicle access, and crowded housing) to help local officials identify communities that may need support in preparing for or recovering from hazards, like drought. Tulare County’s score of 0.94 on a scale from 0 to 1 was the seventh highest in the state behind Kings, Fresno, Madera, Yolo, Glenn and Tehama Counties.

Early indications from Self-Help Enterprises, which has operated the long-term successor to the county’s Household Tank Program since 2018, has reported an approximately 66% increase in the number of water tanks deployed in Tulare County over the past month, suggesting that additional demand may outpace the program’s ability to respond and require a multi-agency response involving non-profit and social services partners, water purveyors, industry and advocacy groups may be necessary to combat the effects of drought within the county. County staff is re-convening the Drought Task Force in early May to support this increased information sharing and coordination effort.

Susana De Anda, co-founder and executive director of Community Water Center in Visalia, said this “new” drought is not new at all for low-income communities who never fully recovered from the last drought. She applauded the governor for his past work to help disadvantaged communities which lack access to clean and abundant drinking water but pointed out more than 1 million Californians still lack access to safe water.

“The last drought crisis was worsened by a lack of pre-drought preparedness, which forced state and local officials to scramble and left families without water for months or even longer,” she said.

De Anda called on the legislature to pass Senate Bill 552 which would create a more proactive framework for drought planning at the local level. Introduced by State Senator Bob Hertzber (D-Van Nuys) in February, the bill would require small water suppliers and schools to develop and submit an emergency response plan to the Division of Drinking Water by the end of 2022 and for the State Water Board to conduct an assessment of the drought and emergency water shortage resiliency measures, also by the end of next year. Counties would be required to form a standing drought and water shortage task force to prepare small water systems and domestic wells for drought and water shortages. The bill passed through its first committee on April 22 and was referred to the Appropriations Committee.

“Investments in drought-resilient infrastructure must be a top state budget priority, along with efforts to address the $1 billion in water debt carried by California families—because as the pandemic reminded us, water is the most basic form of PPE,” De Anda said.

Current conditions are similar to spring 2014, when the state officially declared a drought and implemented statewide water restrictions. The last drought, officially from 2012 to 2016, saw more than 3,000 wells go dry throughout the county.

“If another drought occurs that is as severe as the 2012–16 drought, more than 4,500 domestic wells in the San Joaquin Valley may be impacted. The cost to mitigate this damage could be more than one hundred fifteen million dollars ($115,000,000),” the summary of the bill estimated.

More hot water

The drought will also increase the likelihood of catastrophic wildfires, especially coming off the worst wildfire season in the state’s history. The NWS is predicting forecasts above normal temperatures in Central California through at least September. The combination of well above normal temperatures and dry fuels will likely raise the fire danger in the months ahead, especially over the higher terrain of Central California.

“Additionally, fuel moistures are already at June levels and there are still thousands of acres of dead, beetle-infested trees present in the foothill regions of the Sierra that will provide fuel for a potentially active wildfire season later this spring into the early fall,” NWS stated.

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