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As drought conditions worsen, California braces for ‘worst-case scenario’

Some of California’s agricultural areas are bracing for water cuts later this year after the chair of the state’s Water Resources Control Board said escalating drought conditions will require the state to prepare for the “worst-case scenario.”

“We have to assume that we don’t get another drop, that we don’t receive any more real precipitation” this year, said Joaquin Esquivel at a board meeting on Tuesday. The agency should start working with affected communities now, he said, to model and prepare for how much worse conditions could become by midsummer.

Esquivel’s comments followed a sobering drought update from Michael Macon, an environmental scientist, and Erik Ekdahl, the deputy director of the board’s Division of Water Rights.

The American West is enduring its worst drought in 1,200 years, though California is doing better than some places following a string of record-breaking storms that pulled a lot of the state out of exceptional drought earlier this winter. “We’ve been in worse conditions,” said Macon after showing the board a map of the state’s depleted reservoirs.

But the drought is still severe in most of California, and the state’s projected rainfall is particularly worrying. February is usually California’s wettest month, but “we just had the driest January and February in California’s recorded history,” said Ekdahl. There is virtually no precipitation forecast for this month, and March is looking exceptionally dry as well. February has also been unusually hot throughout the state, and the deluge of rain and snow from earlier storms is starting to evaporate.

“At this point, we’re falling behind [where we should be] by about 1% to 2% per day,” said Ekdahl. “It really does seem like things are moving in a significantly more concerning [direction] and will continue to do so.”

That could mean reimposing water curtailments, though Ekdahl and others said they would need more data before making those decisions. One area of concern is the Russian River watershed, which supplies water to vineyards, dairies, and orchards in California’s wine country, as well as to 650,000 state residents. Communities were placed under water restrictions last year, then got a reprieve when the cuts were suspended last fall. Ekdahl says his team is monitoring water levels and will “see if we need to start reimposing them.”

Ekdahl also touched on the Scott and Shasta rivers, which are essential Coho and Chinook salmon habitat in the northern part of the state. The rivers also supply water to a network of farmers and ranchers and feed into the Klamath River, which has been the site of escalating tensions over water rights between Native and farming communities. The Water Resources Board had suspended water cuts from those rivers through February 11, but Ekdahl suggested the cuts may need to be reimposed as the drought continues.

Erick Orellana, a policy advocate with the Community Water Center, urged the board to focus on the drought’s effects in frontline rural communities.

“The most significant drought impacts we’ve seen have been when households lose access to running water in their homes as a result of large agricultural wells depleting groundwater levels near drinking water wells,” said Orellana. “We have to be clear that every Californian’s human right to water is not less important than another’s pursuit of wealth.”

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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