Local News

Tuesday, Dec 17 2013 05:45 PM

Officials cry drought; state says it's too soon

BY THEO DOUGLAS Californian staff writer tdouglas@bakersfield.com

Officials from four San Joaquin Valley water agencies joined state and federal lawmakers Tuesday in applying pressure to the president and governor to declare a drought emergency and relax endangered species standards as a dry winter looms.

With the National Weather Service predicting a "one-in-three chance" Bakersfield will experience a winter with below-normal rainfall -- its third in a row -- and the state Department of Water Resources announcing it may only deliver 5 percent of requested State Water Project allotments in 2014, officials made ominous sounds.

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"We're looking for the governor to declare a drought emergency, because we believe that will ultimately provide additional flexibility with how we can solve our (water) crisis. Specifically, we need some relaxation of the Delta standards," said Jim Beck, general manager of the Kern County Water Agency, site of the press conference.

The state Endangered Species Act limits the amount of water that districts may pump in order to protect wildlife like the endangered Delta smelt fish.

Tuesday's event brought together officials from the Westlands Water District, Lower Tule River & Pixley Irrigation Districts, and Friant Water Users Authority, with U.S. Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, and state Sen. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield.

Both electeds had joined California Republican congressmen and members of the state Senate and Assembly in writing a drought letter to President Barack Obama and Gov. Jerry Brown earlier this month urging immediate action.

"I know there's some things that are possible for him to do, through emergency drought announcing, through some rollback on some of the regulations," Valadao said of Brown.

That's also what California lawmakers Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, did last week, writing a letter to Brown urging him to cry drought.

But Nancy Vogel, spokeswoman for the state Department of Water Resources, said it's too soon to do that.

"We'll take January's and February's precipitation into account, and then consider whether we feel a proclamation or a declaration is in order," Vogel said. "I think the last time there was a federal drought emergency drought proclamation was in the 1980s. That's because you don't get a federal proclamation until a state has exhausted its own resources."

Fuller, who hopes the legislature will hear from state water contractors when it reconvenes in January, warned that scarce resources may cost consumers dearly.

Water from the delta is mostly used for farming in Kern County. A very small portion allotted to Kern goes for drinking water.

And much of what is used for drinking is often swapped for better quality Kern River water.

"We need to tell consumers that the 5 percent allocation means all our reservoirs are so low that they are very likely to face conservation measures very soon, and certainly there will be price hikes," Fuller said.

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