Sonoma County Gazette, June 2014: Drought in the News

With the specter of global warming and unusual weather patterns, we now live in a new water reality that should persuade all citizens to regularly and stringently conserve water on a permanent basis.

Drought in the News….

On April 25th, the Governor issued his second Executive Order to redouble State drought actions.  The Order consisted of 20 actions requiring immediate implementation. He states: “The driest months are still to come in California and extreme drought conditions will get worse.  This Order cuts red tape to help get water to farmers more quickly, ensure communities have safe drinking water, protect vulnerable species and prepare for an extreme fire season.”

On May 15th, the US Drought Monitor for California declared that 100% of California is now in highest stages of drought.  There are five stages all together and our area is in the fourth stage.   About 70% of California is in the 4th and 5th stages.  The area in the highest stage goes from San Francisco to Los Angeles and from the Coast to the Sierra Mountains.  Seven major fires have broken out in the last few weeks in Southern California.  It’s a time to be very cautious.

On May 18th, Press Democrat headlines in Empire Section shout, “State may limit rights to river water” (north of Healdsburg).  This would be an unprecedented action.  The curtailment would affect those with ‘junior’ water rights obtained since 1914, and could begin very soon.  It is likely to continue all summer.

NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) recently increased probability to 78% of an El Nino winter (up from 66 percent last month, and 36 percent in November, 2013) that could bring large amounts of rain, but they would not make predictions on the intensity and/or amounts of rain that might fall.  The governor’s office was not happy with this prediction because it could cause people to not take drought very seriously.  El Nino may not happen, the drought may continue, and conditions could then become even more dire next year.

Governor Brown’s 2nd Executive Order on Drought Actions…

  • While the governor did not demand mandatory conservation in his recent Declaration, many requirements of the Order imply that it should occur.  (Order can be viewed at Governor’s Website.

Here is a summary of twenty requirements aimed to address the drought:

  • Expedites movement of water to areas of need and provide drinking water supplies to areas with acute shortages,
  • Makes suggestions for stringent conservation, (without mentioning mandatory)
  • Calls for minimizing outdoor water irrigation with potable water, including sports fields, government facilities, parks, schools, etc.
  • Calls for cutbacks of water use in commercial establishments, (i.e. water by request only in restaurants)
  • Requires recipients of government funds to have conservation plans,
  • Calls for monitoring when and if fish migration occurs, securing of necessary migration flows, encourages habitat restoration, etc.
  • Water Board will adopt general waste discharge requirements to facilitate use of treated wastewater for irrigation to meet Dept. of Health Guidelines
  • Loosens restrictions for tree cutting near homes and other structures to minimize fire hazard.  For those living in tree rich areas, this can be substantial.
  • Water Board is directed to adopt emergency measures to prevent all waste of water, to prevent unreasonable diversions, to encourage water recycling and conservation, and to require curtailment of diversions when water not available.
  • Competitive bidding requirements on State water projects are rescinded under this emergency,
  • Certain Water Code requirements are rescinded as part of the implementation of this Order (spelled out in item #20)
  • Suspension of environmental law (CEQA) for many requirements of this Order.

Some early responses…..

While Governor stops short of requiring savings, it’s hard to imagine implementation on a large scale without making them mandatory.

Most environmentalists do not support the Governor’s decision to suspend environmental regulations through 2014, while still expecting to provide clean drinking water and preserve endangered species.

In regards to irrigation with tertiary wastewater, neither the Department of Health Services nor the Regional Board, whose regulations oversee wastewater irrigation practices, require adequate irrigation strategies and monitoring to assure wastewater runoff does not occur.  Rather the focus is on allowing ‘incidental runoff’.

Department of Health Services deals with a relatively narrow range of water quality problems, mostly of an acute toxicity nature and, in regards to irrigation, pretty much ignores unregulated endocrine disrupting chemicals, chronic toxicity health impacts, and their impacts to streams and on wildlife and aquatic life.  Irrigation with tertiary wastewater, especially when it runs off with pesticides and similar endocrine disrupting products, as it commonly does according to some of our research, is harmful to creatures, humans, and inflicts greatest harm in summer when streams are most vulnerable.

Water shortages are the new reality, and we must do all we can, in addition to messaging, to take effective actions to provide long term benefits for water resources.


  • There are too many users using too much water. Our local creeks and river are very degraded as a result of mismanagement of water resources (i.e., no control of groundwater diversions) resulting in too little surface flow, which may be lowered further as the summer progresses.  California is the only State in the United States that does not require reporting of groundwater use.
  • In regards to irrigation with tertiary wastewater, neither the Department of Health Services nor the Regional Board, whose regulations oversee wastewater irrigation practices, require adequate strategies to assure that wastewater runoff does not occur.  This runoff often carries toxins with it that have been applied to the land, not to mention unregulated chemicals and pharmaceuticals in wastewater.  This is particularly problematic in urban areas.

That being said, we wish Governor Brown the best in finding equitable ways to distribute a finite resource and the wisdom to set long range plans in place to manage what may become, to some extent, a permanent drought.  We all have a part to play.