SACRAMENTO — In what could become one of California’s biggest crises in years, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a statewide drought emergency Friday, an action that sets the stage for new state and federal efforts.
The governor also wants to focus Californians on the possibility of water shortages.
“All I can report to you is it’s not raining today and it’s not likely to rain for several weeks,” Brown said in a news conference in San Francisco. On Thursday, the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center forecast below normal precipitation for two-thirds of California through April.
Brown’s proclamation allows California to request a broad emergency declaration from President Barack Obama, which would expedite some water transfers, provide financial assistance and suspend some state and federal regulations.
The situation in most of California and northern Nevada is extremely dry, according to the most recent report Thursday from the U.S. Drought Monitor, a federal website that tracks drought nationwide. Almost 99% of California is considered abnormally dry or worse; almost two-thirds of the state is in extreme drought.
2013 became the driest year on record in California; San Francisco had the least rain since record keeping there began during the gold rush of 1849.
For the past few weeks, Golden State lawmakers and California residents have been urging Brown to make the drought official, a situation made clear with bleak news from the first Sierra snowpack measurement of the season Jan. 10.
The northern Sierra has a snowpack that’s only 8% of normal for this date, according to the latest measurements released Thursday from the California Department of Water Resources. The central Sierra is at 16% of normal; the southern Sierra at 22%. Last year at this time, snowpack was normal or exceeded it.
The mountain snowpack, while a boon for Lake Tahoe ski resorts, also acts like a reservoir during winter and early spring, providing the state with its biggest and most reliable water supply.
Brown is urging voluntary water conservation to the tune of a 20% reduction. But he stopped short of saying such a reduction should be mandatory — for now, at least.
“We ought to be ready for a long, continuous, persistent effort,” including the possibility of drinking-water shortages, he said. “I think the drought emphasizes that we do live in an era of limits, that nature has its boundaries.”
The chairwoman of the state Senate’s Natural Resources and Water Committee sees the problem as an opportunity for the state to change the way it deals with water.
“With a hotter and drier future, we can’t duplicate water policies of the 20th century to address challenges of the 21st,” Sen. Fran Pavley, a Democrat like Brown, from Agoura Hills in Southern California. “We need to be resourceful and create new water supplies with cost-effective, sustainable strategies.”
Brown’s executive order directs state officials to offer extra help to farmers and California communities by allowing water managers to move water more quickly to rights-holders. And it qualifies agriculture interests for federal programs meant to help with unemployment and financial losses.
Most of California’s farmers rely on irrigation to grow hundreds of crops including broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, celery, melons, lettuce and tomatoes year-round that are shipped across the USA. Some growers have had to leave fields fallow as their water allocations have run dry, affecting crops and jobs.
Across the state, agriculture is responsible for more than three-quarters of California’s water use, according to a 2009 UCLA report.
“Drought conditions are wreaking havoc on farmers in California, especially in the San Joaquin Valley” from south of Sacramento to Bakersfield,” Tom Nassif, Western Growers president and chief executive, said in a statement thanking Brown for his executive order. “The situation is dire and requires the full attention of state and federal leaders, which is why the declaration is so important.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Wednesday that counties in 11 states qualify as primary natural disaster areas. The designation for some counties in Arkansas, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah means eligible farmers can qualify for low-interest emergency loans from the department.
Brown also directed state agencies to use less water than they do now and to hire more firefighters for what already is a very dry winter. The state had six active wildfires Friday, including one that started as a campfire Thursday, destroyed five homes and threatened neighborhoods east of Los Angeles.
State water experts have compared current conditions to the bleak 1976-77 drought season in California, one that Brown also oversaw during his first term in office. The governor fielded a question about the comparisons Friday and simply said it’s a reminder that Californians need to look back at the conservation efforts of that era and how they use water in 2014.
“This effort is a call to arms,” he said.
California periodically has peaks and troughs of precipitation across the state, but only once in almost 120 years — in 1982 — has the statewide average exceeded 40 inches. Below are the nine multi-year droughts in the state since 1900.