As President Barack Obama and California Gov. Jerry Brown visited the state’s San Joaquin Valley to lend support for the state’s deepening drought, some officials gathered in Sacramento on Friday, Feb. 14, for a briefing on the response that will be necessary to mitigate a scenario with the potential to reach disastrous proportions.
As California begins its third year of drought, the potential for catching up in 2014 is poor. The three major precipitation months are December, January and February and the state is around 20 percent of average for this time of year, well into that span.
The drought could have wide-reaching consequences affecting business, tax revenue, jobs and the upcoming fire season.
“This has been different,” said Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Office of Emergency Services and chairman of the Governor’s Interagency Drought Task Force.” Ghilarducci called the situation unprecedented with very dry conditions, very little snowpack and the state’s reservoirs at very low levels.
In fact, 84 percent of the state’s land area is in a severe drought condition and that affects agriculture production and, of course, increases fire danger. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has already hired 250 additional firefighters to combat the increase in fires that are expected. Some communities face drinking water shortages already.
“We have to think about a number of actions and functions that all of us collectively must do to be able to ensure the sustainability of the resource in the face of possibly more dry years.”
Ghilarducci pointed to Australia, which recently suffered a 12-year drought, as evidence that the state must gear up long-term conservation measures.
“This is a crisis that’s here but continues to evolve,” Ghilarducci said. “We need to be prepared for that as we move into the summer months with the increased threat of fire with the resulting dryness and communities running out of water supplies, and we have to make sure we don’t forget our most vulnerable, special needs populations.”
In December the governor convened the task force and found the situation dire enough to declare a statewide emergency on Jan. 17.
Task force member John Laird, secretary of California’s Natural Resources Agency, said the issue is too critical for the same silos and turf wars to remain. “We have to send water where it’s needed most and save what we can for later. The old divides, whether it’s north versus south, farmers versus fish, can’t apply anymore. Laird said the public needs to be pressed to undertake conservation measures because it is already weeks behind in understanding the severity of the situation and taking prudent measures.
The evolving nature of the drought means it’s important to take action before things become too dire, Ghilarducci said. “Unlike a fire that has smoke or a building collapse where you can see the damage and have a tangible sense of what it means this is an evolving crisis and unless you do something about it proactively when it’s on you to the point when it becomes a public health and safety crisis, it’s too late.”
He said his role as state emergency manager is to coordinate various agencies that have a responsibility to plan and anticipate the impacts on different segments of the population, including vulnerable populations. “From an emergency management perspective, drought — particularly one at this level — has an impact on every sector that we deal with, whether it’s transportation or communications or food and agriculture, water supply, health and medical, they all can be impacted.