Brown to declare California drought emergency as Western water woes intensify

The National Weather Service predicts droughts will get worse across the West (Graphic: NWS's Climate Prediction Center)

The National Weather Service predicts droughts will get worse across the West (Graphic: NWS’s Climate Prediction Center)

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) will use a morning news conference in San Francisco on Friday to declare a drought emergency amid one of the driest winters on record.

The declaration comes a month after Brown appointed a panel to assess the situation and make recommendations. Several members of Congress, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D), had pushed Brown to declare the emergency. During a two-day swing through California to push his budget proposal last week, Brown faced calls from local legislators to speed aid to their constituents.

More than 90 percent of California is experiencing severe drought conditions. Last year, dozens of cities in California set new records for lowest levels of precipitation; Occidential, Big Sur and Crescent, Calif., all recorded rain totals 30 to 40 inches below average, according to National Weather Service statistics.

“It’s really serious,” Brown told reporters this week at a stop in Fresno. “In many ways, it’s a mega-drought; it’s been going on for years.”

The longer-term outlook is even worse. The snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains is at just 20 percent of normal, the Los Angeles Times reported. The lower snowpack means much less runoff during hot summer months, when the danger posed by wildfires is greatest.

The dry conditions are already taking a toll. Rising Santa Ana winds turned a campfire into a wildfire that burned 1,700 acres in the San Gabriel Mountains outside Los Angeles this week. And firefighters are mopping up a 300-acre blaze that began two weeks ago in Humboldt County in the northwest corner of the state.

The Humboldt fire, wildfire experts said, is especially disturbing: Humboldt County is one of the wettest places in America. Major fire activity in January, so many months from the typical start of the fire season, has experts worried about the conditions to come during the rest of the year.

The water situation isn’t expected to improve in the next three months. In a long-term assessment posted Thursday, the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center said the drought that has smothered Western states over the past two years is likely to worsen in the next several weeks across the Pacific Northwest, the interior West and the Southwest.

State lawmakers have pushed an $11 billion water bond measure for voter approval for almost five years. Several lawmakers are pushing a smaller water bond for this year’s ballot. Brown has not said whether he will support such a bond.

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