The Interagency Drought Task Force gives an update on the latest state and federal actions to address California’s unprecedented drought conditions

At last Friday’s Drought Workshop, the Governor’s Drought Task Force members Mark Ghirlarducci, Director of the Office of Emergency Services; John Laird, Secretary of Natural Resources, and Felicia Marcus, Chair of the State Water Board were on hand to kick things off by updating attendees on what state and federal agencies are doing to address the impacts of the drought.

Mark Ghilarducci, Director of the Office of Emergency Services

Drought panel OESWe are in truly an unprecedented circumstance of drought,” began Director of the Office of Emergency Services Mark Ghilarducci.  “It’s not business as usual.  The bottom line is that it doesn’t take a lot of science to understand that if there’s no rain, there’s no water, and with no water, we have to think about a number of actions and functions that all of us collectively coming together must do to be able to ensure the sustainability of that resource in the possibly coming dry years.”

We’re working with the National Weather Service, NOAA and others in the scientific community to try and assess the levels and time frame for the duration of this drought, but we don’t know what the future will bring, he said.  “We’re looking at models where other countries like Australia thought they were going to have a short drought and went into a 12-year drought, so we need to plan for the worst and hope for the best,” he said.

The Governor has convened an Interagency Task Force on the drought and tasked the different state agencies to make recommendations to the Governor to understand and frame the threat we are under and to give an assessment of where we’re at, he said.  That action was followed by the Governor proclaiming a statewide drought emergency – a significant step because it focused attention on the importance of the drought, provided direction to state agencies, and clarified and cleared certain regulations that were in place to streamline the process of our water systems to make sure that we were doing everything we could to act in expeditious manner to mitigate this particular situation, he said.

In addition, we’ve also had some tremendous cooperation and we’ve been working very closely with the federal government on all levels, at the regional level and in Washington DC,” he said.  “We’ve had both in-person meetings and conference calls with White House senior staff, and today the Governor is with the President in Fresno where they are addressing drought related relief issues.  The cooperation has been great,” he said, noting that this cooperation extends through the state agencies, local governments and water districts.

Drought Mark GhilarducciHaving everybody coming online and understanding this particular crisis has been really fantastic, and the cooperation has been great,” he said.  “But there’s more to do.”  Drought is a crisis that continues to evolve, and we need to prepare for the summer months and the increased threat of fire and communities running out of water as well as the needs of our most vulnerable populations, he said.

So, we need your help,” said Mr. Ghilarducci.  “I ask that you convene working groups or task forces at the local level.  Please tie in with your emergency management system and work that back up through the standardized emergency management system so that we can collect the data and work with you.  We want to be as proactive as possible but this is a public/private/individual solution effort.  It’s not just a one-way street.  It’s not just a government solution.”

He emphasized the need to enhance coordination and communication.  “Please reach out through your emergency management network to make sure that information is flowing,” he said.  “We want to be as proactive as possible, particularly in vulnerable communities.  Keep in contact with us and let us know if there’s additional areas, ideas, or conversations that you want to have.  This is about ideas as we move forward and as we implement our actions, the Governor’s emergency actions, and as we roll out the Governor’s water action plan as a long term sustainable effort.”

John Laird, Secretary of Natural Resources

John LiardSecretary Laird began by saying he was glad to be here and glad everyone was here as well because it’s really going to require a lot of effort.  He said it’s also significant that the he was there with the Director of the Office of Emergency Services and the Chair of the State Water Board as well, because it demonstrates that the state agencies are working together, he said.   “We’re not doing traditional silos; we’re not just looking at this individually from department or individual agency perspectives,” he said.  “We’re trying to coordinate at the top level to make sure we move forward together.

We can’t make it rain, but we’re sending water to where it’s needed the most, saving what we have for later, and asking all Californians to conserve,” said Secretary Laird.  “The old divides, whether it’s farmers versus fish, north versus south, don’t and shouldn’t apply anymore.  We just simply don’t have much water.  This drought affects everyone and we have to come together as Californians to get through it.”

The impacts of the drought are many.  Farmers are facing planting decisions with great uncertainty over water supplies and many rivers and streams that provide essential habitat for endangered and threatened species are running very low, he said.  “Our state agencies are working really closely with our federal counterparts to conserve water upstream in reservoirs for use as the drought wears on.  After two dry years and seriously into the third, we need to save water upstream to enable some minimal amount of flow through the dry season.  Our agencies are taking actions almost daily and on the ground and in real time in response to what is actually going on, to respond to this drought, and we will be making more funding available in the coming weeks for agriculture projects that help farmers and ranchers use water more efficiently.”

Agencies are coordinating to help in many different ways, he said, pointing out that just recently, many agencies came together to help the City of Willits, one of a number of the state’s communities that are facing a drinking water shortage.  “This week the Administration announced a joint effort to help them.  Funding will be provided from the California Department of Public Health’s Drinking Water Program, CalFire crews made up of low-level corrections inmates are laying pipeline to connect Willits to more stable water supplies, and the USDA has encouraged Willits to apply for a $500,000 grant from the Rural Development Agency to help with their drinking water system,” he said, noting this is just one example of how everyone is working together to solve problems.

Drought Task Force officials will be meeting with local government leaders around the state to make sure they are getting the resources they need and to hear from them directly as to what’s going on in their communities with regard to the drought, Mr. Laird said.  There will be meetings statewide in the coming weeks and months to make sure that all federal, state and local leaders are coordinating and do everything we can get through this extreme drought, he said.

Drought panel 3We want to thank President Obama for his continued support and the support of our federal partners during the drought,” said Mr. Laird.  He acknowledged the President’s visit to the Central Valley which was occurring on this same day, as well as his announcement of drought assistance to California, which includes $100 million in livestock disaster assistance, $60 million for food banks to help families that may be economically impacted by the drought, an expansion of summer meal sites in drought-stricken areas, and $300 million in emergency water assistance grants for rural communities experiencing water shortages.  Mr. Laird noted that the President also directed federal facilities to take immediate steps to curb water use.

The Administration supports the federal legislation recently introduced by Senators Feinstein and Boxer and Representatives Costa, Cardenas, and Farr,” said Mr. Laird.  “The bill provides $300 million in emergency funds to be used on a range of projects to maximize water supplies for farmers, consumers, and municipalities as well as providing economic assistance.  It is the product of a series of discussions and meetings with a wide range of federal and state departments, agencies and stakeholders, and the departments that oversee water deliveries and economic assistance programs.”

The drought is a matter of urgency requiring coordination between a myriad of agencies at the federal and state level, and at different levels, he said.  “We are all in this together.  It’s going to require some parts of the state helping other parts of the state.  This is no time to move to division.  This is the time to focus on reality of the difficulty of this situation and make sure that we lay the groundwork for those people who might be able to help in one part of the state to be able to actually help those in another.”

Everyone needs to take action,” said Mr. Laird.  “When the Governor called for people to curb their use, it’s because he recognized that’s it’s the 38 million Californians that have to make individual decisions that will make it easier for all the cities and the counties and the state and federal government to manage with unprecedented limited resources.  It is very important that everybody join us in that.  I think the Governor was trying to do one specific thing which is take the lead in a way that it makes it easier for people in this room, in local government or water agencies, to take the difficult positions because he has said that statewide, we have this problem and everybody has to do their part.”

Felicia Marcus, Chair of the State Water Board

Felicia Marcus, Chair of the State Water Board, began by thanking the organizers of the workshop, calling it a ‘community conversation.’  “The community of California as a whole is facing a disaster of catastrophic proportions and as my colleagues have so ably said, the only way we’ll get through this is together,” she said.  “This kind of conversation where we share what we’re doing at various locations across the state and using all of our creativity and our good hearts is how we’re going to help each other find those extra ounces of creativity and insight and assistance for everyone.  That’s how we’ll get through it.”

Drought panel 3Ms. Marcus there were four specific categories of actions the State Water Board is taking to address the drought.  “One is that we’re trying to take our traditional regulatory tools and use the flexibility inherent in them to try and help get through an extraordinary period without just applying more regular ordinary period tools, with a very high degree of flexibility,” she said, noting that working in conjunction with the Natural Resources Agency, the Executive Director of the State Water Board issued a temporary urgency order which allowed for conserving the remaining water in storage for essential public health and safety as well as for salinity control through the coming months.  “That meant cutting back on what would be regular outflows for fish, cutting back what would be regular salinity numbers set for normal conditions, allowing for real-time operation of the Delta Cross Channel gate, and sort of heroic and really important real-time collaboration with the federal and state governments, both operations and fish agencies, to figure out how to, instead of using a seasonal change, using a real-time daily change to operate the system both to protect fish and to protect salinity in the Delta.  This allowed us to cut back on outflows and limit the export pumps to essential public health and safety.”

The Executive Director already changed that order a bit during the rains because there was enough water to meet the standards,” Ms. Marcus added.  “We allowed some water for export and you can expect to have regular updates of that order.”  She noted that the State Water Board will hold a workshop on the 18th and the 19th to hear public comment about the temporary urgency change order,  as well as a workshop on the 26th to talk about other actions the State Water Board can take, such as conservation, recycling, and other efforts.

The second thing that we’re doing which is very important for those in the water agency and water rights arena is that we are fulfilling our water rights obligations to implement the water rights system, which is a system based around seniority,” said Ms. Marcus.  “We will be issuing curtailment notices.  Those go out on a given water system when the water runs too low to supply the needs of senior water rights holders.  The law in California, both in statue and in case law, gives priority to senior water rights holders and cuts off junior water rights holders progressively until the most senior water rights holders needs are met.   A notice that they would be going out went out a few weeks ago.  That is also something we will want to be hearing about at this workshop on the 18th and 19th.”

Third, the State Water Board is working very closely with the Resources agency and the federal agencies to figure out how to expedite transfers to the extent that transfers are possible during this period, she said.  “We’ll be making a variety of decisions on that, both in the consolidating what’s known as the point of use of the state and federal projects once we get an application from the projects, which we expect shortly.”

Fourth, we are all turning over the couch cushions to figure out how we can get money out there, both in attractive term financing and other grant funding pots that we have to accelerate recycling, conservation, and a variety of other endeavors in integrated water management that are just smart,” she said, emphasizing that the State Water Board really wants to hear from the public at the upcoming workshops.

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Ms. Marcus praised the California Water Action Plan, noting that it’s posted on all of the websites.  “It is a cross-departmental effort to lay out the Administration’s priorities for the next five years and to lay a fundamental foundation for sustainable water management going forward,” she said, noting that there is a lot that is familiar in the plan.  “It is about integrating across departments and it’s what we really need to do to make progress in the future.  It cuts across flood control, water supply, and water quality, which is just essential if we’re going to use every molecule of water as intelligently as we can and as intelligently as we must to face the future,” pointing out this should be not only for today but for the future in the face of climate change.   “The hallmarks of the Plan are cooperation cross divisional lines and a real respect for regional leadership as well as the intelligent stewardship of our water resources as one water.”

One final thing,” said Ms. Marcus.  “John Laird said it particularly well about us all being in this together and the need to come together versus what can be a human impulse to blame or tear apart in crisis.  We really are going to have to collaborate our way through this one as never before with intelligence and compassion, not just for the people we serve, but for each other as folks who are trying to figure out how to do this as best we can in a crisis.


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