Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks about the drought on Monday, in front of the half-empty San Luis reservoir in Merced County.
(Office of Gov. Gavin Newsom )

Drought explainer: Why isn’t Santa Cruz included in the state’s newly released emergency plan?

Santa Cruz County is in “extreme” drought, yet the county wasn’t included in the Governor’s drought emergency declaration. Why not?

Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency in 41 of California’s 58 counties on Monday, in a significant expansion of the emergency declared in Sonoma and Mendocino counties last month.

Santa Cruz County is currently experiencing a rapidly intensifying drought, and has moved from the U.S. Drought Monitor’s classification of “moderate” drought in April to “extreme” drought in May.

Yet, when the emergency declaration was released, Santa Cruz was not among among the counties listed. Why not?

Jeanine Jones, the Interstate Resources Manager from the California Department of Water Resources, said the emergency declaration isn’t strictly a judgment on the severity of the drought in an area; it is more about what actions state authorities need to take to assist them if they need help. “A big reason for doing the emergency proclamation at a state level was to allow waiver of laws or regulations that affect the timing of the state’s ability to respond,” Jones said.

For example, there was a concern that Lake Mendocino, in Mendocino County, would be at extremely low levels by the end of the season. The emergency declaration allows the State Water Resources Board “to take regulatory action in a much faster manner,” and enact changes like modifying the release requirements from the reservoir, for example.

To know whether Santa Cruz County gets added to the drought emergency depends on the following question: “Would the State Water Resources Control Board — which is the agency that administers water rights — need the emergency authority to do something in Santa Cruz?” Jones said. “As far as I’m aware, that need hasn’t been expressed yet.”

The drought emergency declaration is independent from the U.S. Drought Monitor, the agency that classifies the state of drought. That program is largely used to determine whether farms in a county are eligible for relief from the U.S. Drought Monitor.

The governor announced the expanded emergency on the same day as he released a proposal to use $5.1 billion from the state surplus to fund drought response and water resiliency programs. If approved by the Legislature, the money would go towards a variety of projects statewide, including drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, and groundwater cleanup and water recycling projects.