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California experiencing a 'drought emergency and a flood emergency,’ officials say

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Esther Quintanilla
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KVPR
Homes and cars in the small community of Planada in Merced County, California, are surrounded by water after the town experienced flooding in a recent atmospheric river storm.

FRESNO, Calif. — The heavy rainfall over the last few weeks has allowed California's drought-stricken Central Valley to take a much needed gulp of water.

Over the course of recent storms caused by atmospheric rivers, drought conditions in the region have managed to downgrade from “exceptional” to “severe." But despite the extremely wet weather, the drought is not over yet.

“California is experiencing, coincidentally, both a drought emergency and a flood emergency,” says Karla Nemeth, the director of the Department of Water Resources.

According to the DWR, the state is expected to remain in a drought emergency until the end of the wet season in March. The department will then analyze snowpack data and review water supply availability throughout the state.

John Yarbrough, an assistant deputy director at the DWR, says despite the rain, statewide reservoir levels are still below the historical average.

“We still have a lot of room in our reservoirs to take in the inflows that we're seeing on the horizon,” he said.

Reservoirs are critical water storage for the state. The department does plan to reassess drought conditions at the end of January.

Officials seek more water exports

With a mix of drought and floods also comes debate over the state's water management.

As waters flood communities around the state, elected officials are pleading the state to relax restrictions on pumping, and to release more water down the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

They say that could benefit farms and communities that have been stuck in the drought.

California Senator Melissa Hurtado, in addition to Congressional Rep. David Valadao and a number of other officials, sent a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom asking the state to maximize water exports to southern sections of the Delta.

“Government regulations should not and must not deny our constituents critical water from these storms. While we cannot make it rain, we must take advantage of opportunities to store water when it does and maximize what can be moved at all times through the Delta for the duration of these storms,” lawmakers wrote in the joint letter issued with Valadao.

In a press call this week, officials said the department is modifying exports in light of the rain, but is staying within what is allowed by state and federal regulations.

“As we’ve seen delta inflow come in, we’ve been able to plan increases throughout the week,” Molly White, water operations manager for the State Water Project said. “We’re modifying our exports to take as much water and pump as much water as we can within our regulatory constraints.”

Putting the rain to work

Even before California suddenly had more water than some streams could handle, state agencies had already begun implementing ways to increase water availability for drought-stricken areas.

Earlier this month, a fast-tracked six-month permit was issued to the Merced Irrigation District by the State Water Resources Control Board to put back much-needed water into the reserves of the Merced Subbasin. It is one of 21 basins in California that are critically overdrafted, meaning they are low on groundwater.

The permit, the first to be approved under a state program to capture rainfall, allows diversion of up to 10,000 acre-feet of water from Mariposa Creek near Merced during high water flow periods like those currently being experienced.

The excess water would go to agricultural fields where it would seep into the basin. A similar five-year permit was also issued in Sacramento County.

Esther Quintanilla reports on diverse communities for KVPR through the Central Valley News Collaborative, which includes The Fresno Bee, Vida en el Valle, KVPR and Radio Bilingüe.
Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado is KVPR's News Director. Prior to joining the station's news department in 2022, he was a reporter for PBS NewsHour and The Fresno Bee.