SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Standing in the dry, cracked bottom of Lake Mendocino, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency Wednesday in two Northern California counties where grape growers and wineries are major users, an order that came in response to arid conditions affecting much of the state and the U.S. West.
The declaration is targeted to Mendocino and Sonoma counties, where drought conditions are especially bad, rather than statewide, as some officials and farmers in the agricultural-rich Central Valley had hoped. But the Democratic governor said a broader drought declaration could come as conditions change.
California, which is now in its second year of drought, is bracing for another devastating wildfire season after a winter with little precipitation.
“Oftentimes we overstate the word historic, but this is indeed an historic moment, certainly historic for this particular lake, Mendocino,” Newsom said, standing where 40 feet (12 meters) of lake water was supposed to be. The lake is at about 40% of normal capacity.
About three-quarters of the American West is in what is called a megadrought, with critical waterways like the Colorado River and Rio Grande that supply millions of people and farms expected to have dismally low flows this year. The White House on Wednesday announced the creation of a working group helmed by the Interior and Agriculture departments to address worsening drought conditions in the U.S. West.
Last week, hundreds of farmers who rely on a massive irrigation project spanning the Oregon-California border were told they’ll get a fraction of the water they need as federal regulators attempt to balance agriculture with threatened and endangered fish species central to the heritage of several tribes.
In California, the two counties spotlighted by Newsom are part of the Russian River watershed, which is about 110 miles (177 kilometers) long. Lakes Mendocino and Sonoma are the primary sources of water for residents and commercial users like wineries, and together they provide water for about 600,000 people, said Grant Davis, general manager for Sonoma Water.
Beyond the drought declaration in the two counties, Newsom’s executive order allows California to prepare for expected effects of the water shortage statewide more quickly.