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Humboldt's 'New Normal'

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The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors heard a series of dire warnings May 25 about what worsening drought conditions could mean for the North Coast, from catastrophic wildfire to entire communities running out of water and massive fish kills in local rivers.

Perhaps most alarmingly, a host of officials who addressed the board warned this is no anomaly.

"The weather is changing," said Craig Tucker, a natural resources consultant for the Karuk Tribe, explaining that nine of California's 11 hottest years on record and three of its driest have occurred since 2011. "What we're living here is not really a drought but a new normal driven by climate change."

In a conversation that spanned more than two hours, the board heard from representatives of CalFire, the National Weather Service, the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District, the Yurok and Karuk tribes and the office of emergency services, all of whom expect a dry, hot summer and fall with a host of reverberating impacts. After the reports and taking public comment, the board struggled to agree on next steps. It agreed, after a failed vote to advance one motion, to form a drought task force, explore the creation of a "climate change and resiliency" staff position and direct staff to begin a public messaging campaign underscoring the severity of the drought and the need for water conservation and fire safe practices.

Fire Weather

National Weather Service hydrologist Kathleen Zontos reported that Humboldt County is currently in "moderate to severe drought" and conditions are expected to worsen.

The county has seen only 50 to 70 percent of normal rainfall so far this water year, with totals having fallen far short of normal last year, too.

"What does that mean for the summer months ahead of us?" she asked. "Essentially, weatherwise, the damage has already been done. ... We're not going to see relief until next winter. ... It looks like it could get worse before it gets better."

Zontos added that "above normal" temperatures are forecast this summer, raising the potential for "significant wildfires across Humboldt County."

Humboldt-Del Norte CalFire Unit Chief Kurt McCray agreed.

"We're definitely looking at an unfortunate situation ahead of us," he said, adding that forests in the region have an abundance of "dry fuels" that are at below record moisture levels, meaning they are drier than they have ever been, "which is very concerning." McCray explained that soil moistures, which in past years have mitigated dry fuel levels and helped provide resilience to the local landscapes, are similarly at alarmingly low levels. As such, McCray said CalFire will fully staff and equip all its facilities by June 1 — about three weeks ahead of schedule — anticipating fire season will begin early and grow dire over the next five or so months.

At one point last fall, McCray said, five of the six largest fires recorded in California history were burning at once.

"Conditions this year are far worse than they were last year," he said, adding that, to date, the state has already seen four times as many acres burned this year over last year.

This, McCray said, means everyone has a part to play in keeping communities safe, urging people to be "diligent and very fire safe with activities" and to make sure they create and maintain defensible space around their properties. Finally, he urged residents to heed evacuation order and warnings if they come, saying it enables fire crews to do their job and "minimizes complications."

Not Enough Water

The Klamath River is already in a state of emergency, reported Yurok Tribal Chair Joseph James, adding that, "as we speak," juvenile salmon are dying of disease due to poor water conditions.

The juvenile salmon die-off will have dire implications for future salmon runs, he said, while also warning the fall will carry the risk of another adult salmon fish kill similar to what was seen in 2002. He urged the board and other elected officials to do all they can to "declare a drought" and do what they can to help.

"The river is our lifeway ... it's our culture. It's who we are," James said. "The river takes care of us and we want to make sure we take care of it."

Tucker stressed that the situation is historic, saying we're in the midst of a two-year stretch as dry as any on record since 1900 and "this is something more significant than a drought." He urged officials to look at groundwater policies and how they impact surface flows and fisheries, to make sure everyone has safe, affordable drinking water, to work with the agricultural sector to develop plans to adapt to dry years and to invest in forest health.

Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District Business Manager Chris Harris said that while the district is fortunate that its reservoir at Ruth Lake is at 99 percent capacity, it's bracing for large-scale impacts. The Mad River, she said, is already seeing tributaries drying up, impacting flows and water quality in the river. She also said the district is anticipating that some small, rural districts will run out of water this year and wells will run dry, so the district is researching options to supply them by trucking water in. But that's a daunting challenge, she said, as it would require some new infrastructure. Plus, she added, while even the smallest communities use roughly 1 million gallons of water a month, the average water truck holds 3,000, meaning hundreds of truck trips would be needed to meet demand.

"That's pretty much the district's position: We are absolutely happy to help but it's just not as easy as running a garden hose," Harris said.

Humboldt County Planning Director John Ford said his department is currently researching hydrological connectivity and consulting with hydro-geologists to determine the impacts of drawing down wells — or drilling new ones — on regional ground and surface water, particularly as it relates to cannabis cultivation. He noted that the county currently has 500 permits pending for pre-existing cultivation sites and another 700 for new ones, noting that "people have invested greatly in these permits" and the department is researching whether there are "alternative legal sources of water that could be made available to cultivators."

Next Steps

When the matter came back to the board, Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson, who put the discussion on the meeting's agenda, moved that the board instruct staff to come back with next steps and the proposed new climate change position in four to six weeks. When the motion almost died for lack of a second, Chair Virginia Bass stepped in to push it to a vote, but it quickly became apparent it was stuck between Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone, who said earlier he'd support an emergency drought declaration and thought the motion lacked the urgency the moment demanded, and First District Supervisor Rex Bohn and Second District Supervisor Michelle Bushnell, who both seemed to think it unnecessary.

After much circuitous discussion, Madrone put forward a motion to create a three-person task force — comprising Emergency Services Manager Ryan Derby, Ford and Public Works Deputy Director Hank Seaman — to bring back recommendations to the board as soon as possible and to have staff immediately begin a public messaging campaign urging residents to conserve water and engage in fire safe practices. He later introduced a second motion asking staff to bring back a proposal for the new climate change position in the near future.

Both passed unanimously.

The 14-day forecast, meanwhile, called for mostly sunny, windy skies.

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or thad@northcoastjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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