Opinion: Newsom can't quite bring himself to say California's drought is over

Photo/Mark Abramson/The New York Times / Water overflows after a levee broke on the Tule River in Tulare County, near Corcoran, Calif., on March 23, 2023. Epic rainfall that has walloped California’s Central Valley since late December has left no place for excess water to go, forcing farmers and emergency crews to race to save dairies, farmland and orchards.
Photo/Mark Abramson/The New York Times / Water overflows after a levee broke on the Tule River in Tulare County, near Corcoran, Calif., on March 23, 2023. Epic rainfall that has walloped California’s Central Valley since late December has left no place for excess water to go, forcing farmers and emergency crews to race to save dairies, farmland and orchards.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Gov. Gavin Newsom came close but couldn't quite bring himself to say it: The drought's over.

It's disappointing when a governor won't acknowledge what ordinary citizens already know because they can see things for themselves.

Another drought will emerge soon enough. It always does. That's the California pattern -- climate change or not.

But right now, the biggest threat this spring is flooding from rivers leaping their banks.

There's just something about California governors and water officials that prevents them from admitting we're through a dry spell and into a wet period.

They fear we'll resume taking long showers and swamping our lawns. We'll stop conserving water and go back to wasting it. So, they treat us like children, denying the obvious.

On Friday, Newsom and his water advisors stood on a Sacramento Valley farm flooded with storm runoff and pointed out that this has been one of California's wettest winters on record. The Sierra snowpack is historically deep.

And we're still in a drought?

Yes, Newsom asserted.

"Are we out of the drought? Is the drought over?" Newsom asked rhetorically in his opening comments at the farm, answering every attending reporter's question before it was asked.

"It's incumbent upon us to continue to maintain our vigilance ... to allow for the fast-tracking of groundwater replenishment projects, stormwater capture and recycling programs," Newsom continued.

Sure, but a California governor has vast powers. Why couldn't he do all those things -- expediting recovery from the last drought while preparing for the next -- without asserting that the drought persists?

By the end of the event, Newsom seemed almost ready to utter the forbidden words. But he stopped short. The governor concluded by re-asking and re-answering the question:

"Are we out of the drought?

"Mostly but not completely."

When government doesn't level with people and they know it, they become even more cynical and tune out officials trying to lead them. If it's raining buckets and we've got the thickest snowpack in decades, most people aren't going to buy there's still a drought.

"No one understands a continued drought declaration after the 12th atmospheric river," says state Sen. John Laird, D-Santa-Cruz, a former natural resources secretary.

Anyone who believes we're stuck in a drought probably should look up the word.

The Glossary of Meteorology defines "drought" as "a period of abnormally dry weather sufficiently prolonged for the lack of water to cause serious hydrologic imbalance in the affected area."

OK, we had three years of abnormally dry weather that caused a serious hydrologic imbalance. We now are having abnormally wet weather.

But the hydrologic imbalance persists in some areas, especially in aquifers that were irresponsibly depleted by farmers for decades. That doesn't mean the drought persists. It just means we've got a water shortage underground -- caused by drought and over-pumping -- and in some hard-hit small communities.

We're not in a drought. We're recovering from one.

Most of California's surface is saturated.

Some surplus water will be poured across fallowed farm fields so it can soak into the ground and recharge sinking aquifers.

To Newsom's credit, he has been trying to expedite the recharging by streamlining regulations, spending state money and making it easier for water districts and growers to replenish underground reservoirs.

Newsom also rolled back some of the state's toughest drought restrictions. And he announced that the State Water Project will greatly increase its planned summer deliveries to farms and cities -- by more than double.

A governor couldn't do that if we were still in a drought.

The Los Angeles Times

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