County warned that drought is the ‘new normal’

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – ​Humboldt County is in moderate to severe drought but the Board of Supervisors has been advised to view the situation as something even more concerning – the steady advance of climate change.

​At the May 25 board meeting, Supervisor Mike Wilson sponsored an agenda item titled “drought conditions and implications for fire risk and water availability.” But in introducing the presentations, Wilson said, “Some are calling it drought but I think there are many of us who will say that we’re getting into climate change – this is deeper of an issue than we’ve seen before.”

Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson.

​Yurok Tribal Chairman Joe James called attention to a fish kill happening in the Klamath River and urged the county to approve an emergency proclamation.

​Most of the state is in extreme drought. Representing the Karuk tribe, fisheries biologist and natural resources specialist Craig Tucker described this year’s drought as part of a worrisome trend.

​“I just want to make sure than no one thinks 2021 is another run of the mill drought situation,” he said, adding that it’s “particularly concerning.”

​The last two years have been “as dry as any two-year period since 1900,” he continued, and only three two-year periods in the last 120 years have been hotter.

​“What I’m going to suggest is what a lot of other experts are suggesting – that this is something more significant than a drought,” Tucker said.

​After detailing additional state statistics on hot and dry years in the last decade, Tucker concluded that “what we’re living through here is not a drought but a new normal that’s being driven by climate change.”

​Firefighting agencies and departments are bracing for a potentially disastrous summer and fall.

​Kurt McCray, chief of CalFire’s Humboldt/Del Norte unit, recounted last year’s fiery autumn, when “five of the six largest fires in recorded California history were burning at the same time.”

​There’s potential for an even more devastating repeat of that because “conditions this year are far worse than they were at this time last year.”

McCray reported that so far this year, four times as many acres have burned than last year at this time.  

​Many of the county’s residents live in the Humboldt Bay area and Chris Harris of the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District said the district’s reservoir is still 99 percent full.  

But she said dry conditions are affecting Mad River tributaries.

​Ryan Derby of the county’s Office of Emergency Services advised holding off on declaration of an emergency due to lack of state reimbursement funding for the costs involved. .

​But Supervisor Steve Madrone believes the situation is urgent and he pushed for declaring a countywide emergency ASAP.

Noting the condition of Mad River tributaries, Madrone said that “it’s a false feeling of security with a full reservoir when in fact the lower river is drying up.”

​He added that the rest of the county is already entering a water emergency.

​“The vast majority of the county’s land base is experiencing severe drought and many rural water supply districts are getting very low on water and could easily be running out of water later this summer,” he said. “And we’ve heard about all the fish kills on the Klamath, so we’re in a really serious situation – now.”

​Regardless of the costs of declaring an emergency, “We need to do this, this is serious, this is not something that we should just be sitting around and talking about,” he continued.

​A public comment period included mix of opinions.

​Well water use related to cannabis farming was flagged as an impact but Southern Humboldt cannabis farmer Thomas Mulder, who is a member of the county’s Planning Commission, advised not to “make reactionary policy” in response.

​Planning Director John Ford had said that the most recent version of the county’s cannabis ordinance authorizes restriction of “any commercial cannabis activity” in certain circumstances, including drought and low flows in watershed areas.  

His department is “exploring alternative legal sources of water to cultivators” but has not found what Ford described as “one good, clear path yet.”

Supervisors disagreed on how and when to respond to the drought dilemmas but ultimately voted to form a task force to make recommendation and to have county staff issue community messaging and return with options, including establishing a new climate change resiliency staff position.



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