Equilibrium & Sustainability

Newsom relaxes California water restrictions, but says drought situation is still ‘complicated’

California Gov. Gavin Newsom delivers a speech after taking the oath of office on Friday, Jan. 6, 2023, outside the California state Capitol in Sacramento, Calf. (Yalonda M. James/San Francisco Chronicle via AP)

After months of wintry weather relieved much of California from its driest three years on record, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) issued an executive order on Friday to modify — but not remove entirely — the state’s emergency drought proclamation.

“We’ve been waiting for this moment for some time to ask the rhetorical question and answer it: Are we out of the drought?” Newsom asked at a Friday morning press conference in Yolo County near Sacramento.

“I want to affirm your instinct that it should be, it feels like it is,” the governor said.

He noted, however, that “it is and continues to be complicated.”

Accounting for the enormous impact of California’s recent string of atmospheric rivers, the modified proclamation is a slimmed down version of the previous document, with 33 rather than 81 provisions, according to the governor.

The executive order eliminates measures such as a 15 percent voluntary water conservation target that has been in place, while also rescinding “Level 2” drought mandates that required water agencies to implement local contingency programs.

“Those storms have brought record amounts of water into our state,” California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot said. “That means we are in much better condition with our water supply than we were in the fall.”

In parallel to Friday’s executive order, California’s Department of Water Resources also announced a boost in projected water deliveries for the season — estimating that it would be able to fulfill about 75 percent of supply requests, up from 35 percent declared in February.

Yet despite the fact that nearly two-thirds of the state is now drought-free, both Crowfoot and Newsom warned at the press conference that California is by no means “out of the woods.”

“Conditions have radically changed throughout the state, but not enough in places like Klamath and around the Colorado River Basin to call for the end of the drought in California,” Newsom said.

The Klamath River Basin is a region shared by Northern California and Oregon — and is known for its critical role in supporting salmon and other fish populations. The Colorado River, meanwhile, supplies about a third of Southern California’s water. 

Nearly every other part of the state has experienced “substantial improvements, with one major exception,” according to the governor.

“That’s the issue of groundwater,” Newsom said. “That’s why it’s incumbent upon us to continue to maintain our vigilance and maintain some provisions of the executive order.”

The provisions to which he was specifically referring relate to the fast-tracking of groundwater replenishment projects, stormwater capture and water recycling programs.

“Be mindful that we’ve got to conserve as a way of life and as a consequence,” Newsom said, noting that the executive order maintains provisions relating to ornamental irrigation.

Following a season of heavy rainfall, floods and overall “weather whiplash,” the governor emphasized his “deeper understanding, appreciation and respect for Mother Nature and her storage capacity.”

“It’s not just what you see — it’s what you don’t see that foundationally is the treasure trove in terms of California water and water policy,” he said.

Tags Gavin Newsom

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