Christopher Neely covers a mixed beat that includes the environment, water politics, and Monterey County's Board of Supervisors. He began at the Weekly in 2021 after five years on the City Hall beat in Austin, TX.

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Christopher Neely here, with the technicalities of drought declarations on the mind.

This year, the rainy season on the Central Coast was anything but; the region experienced among its driest winters and springs on record. Although that may not be shocking news to those of us who lived through it, the actual numbers are jarring.

To date, Salinas has seen 52 percent of its average rainfall, Big Sur is at 60 percent and Watsonville is at 56 percent, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The headlines have confirmed what we already could have guessed: A dry wet season means the potential for an aggressive wildfire season.

Of course, most of us already know this, which made the specifics of Gov. Gavin Newsom's May 10 drought declaration a little confusing. Citing "extraordinarily warm temperatures in April and early May," Newsom declared a drought emergency for 41 of the state's 58 counties—about 30 percent of its population. Neighboring San Benito County is included, but Monterey County failed to make the cut.

On the same day, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vislack sent a letter to Newsom, explaining he was designating "Monterey, San Benito, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties in California as primary natural disaster areas due to a recent drought." The U.S. Drought Monitor, an official tracker of drought in the U.S., marks North Monterey County and the Peninsula as experiencing "extreme drought" with the rest of the county experiencing a less intense "severe drought."

So what do all of these different statuses mean? Brent Buche, general manager of the Monterey County Water Resources Agency, says drought and disaster declarations are what allow the government to react. Newsom and USDA's drought declarations do not implement any water use restrictions, at least not yet. Newsom's allows the State Water Board to consider changes to operations to respond to the dry conditions and eases regulations that might otherwise tie up response measures. The USDA's natural disaster declaration makes Monterey and the other designated counties eligible for federal assistance and emergency loans.

The USDA's declaration was triggered by scant rainfall during the region's growing season. Buche says Monterey County may not have made the cut for the state's declaration because the county's system relies on groundwater. The harmful impacts of a dry season take longer to trickle down to a community that pulls water from underground reservoirs and aquifers, as opposed to a community that draws from depleted surface water resources. Additionally, Buche notes, Monterey County draws from its own water reservoirs, while many of the communities under the state declaration are part of the larger California State Water Project, and rely on the same, shared resources.

Buche says he's optimistic that the region will make it through the rest of the water year, which ends at the close of September; however, an actual rainy wet season will be crucial.

"If we don't see rain next winter, we're really going to be hurting," Buche says.

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