HANFORD — The burning San Joaquin Valley question right now is this: Is Gov. Jerry Brown going to proclaim a drought emergency?
Brown made an appearance in Fresno Monday, where he got an earful from Westlands Water District and Latino Water Coalition officials. Historically low reservoirs, a looming 0 percent water allocation for Westlands and little rain in sight is tightening the screws on Brown to act decisively.
Brown will see the issue up close and personal Thursday. Hundreds of San Joaquin Valley residents, organized by the coalition, the Nisei Farmers League, the NAACP and other groups, are expected to descend on the Capitol steps to demand an emergency declaration, a water bond and funding for clean drinking water projects in the Valley.
According to Mario Santoyo, executive director of the Latino Water Coalition, the state of emergency would allow for the temporary suspension of environmental rules requiring a certain amount of water to flow through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to the ocean.
Those rules, along with other environmental restrictions on water pumped from the delta, have long stuck in the craw of Westside farmers who count on water deliveries from the federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, both of which draw from the delta.
According to Santoyo, this drought may be unprecedented, even when measured by the high standard of the 1976-77 drought considered the worst in the state’s history.
It could be so bad that the Westside pain of unplanted acres and a crashing economy could spread to the dense and more heavily populated Eastside that uses San Joaquin River water from Millerton Lake behind Friant Dam, according to Santoyo.
If there’s a 0 percent allocation on the Central Valley Project, farmers in the Dos Palos/Firebaugh area who have historical riparian rights to Millerton Lake water could reclaim their share.
When you factor in water released from Millerton for the San Joaquin River salmon restoration project, that could turn off the tap to a swath of rich farmland on the east side of Highway 99 from Fresno to Kern County dependent on the Friant-Kern Canal.
Santoyo said that when he met with Brown on Monday, he worked to convince him that this would be a disaster.
“I had the chance to explain to him how bad the situation is, not on the Westside, but on the Eastside,” Santoyo said. “The side of the Valley that has all the trees, the citrus, all the permanent crops, will get no water. That’s where the majority of the cities are, the majority of the population.”
Valley legislators on both sides of the aisle are putting Brown on the hot seat.
“[Brown] alludes to mega-drought, but doesn’t do anything about it,” said state Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford. “It boggles my mind.”
“I wish he would declare the emergency,” said Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield. “My guess is that he’s probably waiting for the [Feb. 1 snowpack] numbers to come in.”
Brown suggested Monday that he’s “getting ready” for a declaration.
A Sentinel request on Tuesday for clarification from Brown was referred to Nancy Vogel, spokeswoman for the California Department of Water Resources.
Vogel noted that Brown convened an interagency drought task force last month.
“That’s the body that will recommend to the governor whether to make an emergency declaration,” she said.
But Brown doesn’t have to wait for an official recommendation. He can act unilaterally at any time.
Santoyo said Brown seemed to get the message on Monday.
“The upside is, he’s definitely convinced we’re in a severe drought,” Santoyo said.
Others were not so optimistic.
Families Protecting the Valley, a Madera-based group of farmers defending farmland, speculated Monday in a newsletter that Brown doesn’t want to declare an emergency that could lead to suspending environmental restrictions.
The group speculated that Brown fears a potential primary challenge in June from a more liberal member of his own party. Brown is running for re-election this year.
“Could it be that if the governor declares a drought emergency, he would be pressured into helping Central Valley farmers and this would anger his environmental constituents?” the newsletter asked rhetorically.
Salas downplayed the possibility.
“I don’t see any viable candidate out there to challenge the governor, not on the Democratic side,” he said.
So right now, as the state shrivels up, it’s all about Jerry Brown.
“This governor perplexes me in so many ways,” Vidak said. “Hopefully, he learned a little bit coming down [to Fresno].”
The reporter can be reached at 583-2432 and at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SethN_HS.
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