By Sarah McBride
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - California Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency on Friday, a move that will allow the parched state to seek federal aid as it grapples with what could turn out to be the driest year in recorded state history for many areas.
The dry year California experienced in 2013 has left fresh water reservoirs with a fraction of their normal reserves and slowed the normally full American River so dramatically that brush and dry riverbed are showing through in areas normally teeming with fish.
"We can't make it rain, but we can be much better prepared for the terrible consequences that California's drought now threatens, including dramatically less water for our farms and communities and increased fires in both urban and rural areas," Brown, a Democrat, said in a statement.
"I've declared this emergency and I'm calling all Californians to conserve water in every way possible," he said, in a move that will allow him to call for conservation measures and provide flexibility in deciding state water priorities.
Speaking at a news conference in San Francisco, he said the drought threatens to leave farms and communities with dramatically less water and increases the risk of fires in both urban and rural areas. On Friday, a fire burned out of control in the dry brush of the Angeles National Forest in Los Angeles County. And last year, the Rim Fire burned 402 square miles in and around Yosemite National Park, causing $127 million in damage as of late October, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Forest Service.
He appealed to residents to keep a lid on water use with the aim of reducing overall consumption by 20 percent, telling them that "this takes everybody pitching in." He warned that mandatory conservation programs may be initiated down the road.
In a sign of the severity of the drought, some of the state's reservoirs are at their lowest levels in years. The Folsom Reservoir near Sacramento is so low that the remains of a Gold Rush-era ghost town - flooded to create the lake in the 1950s - are visible for the first time in years.
The state's mountain ranges, where runoff from melting snow provides much of the water for California's thirsty cities and farms, have just 20 percent of the snow they normally have at this time of year, officials noted.
Lake Shasta, the largest reservoir in California, is down from its historical average by nearly half.
Other sources of water, including the massive Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, are also affected, prompting cities to dip into reserves and forcing farmers to scramble. Some public agencies may be able to purchase just 5 percent of the water that they contracted to buy from the state.
Adding to concerns, January and February are usually the wettest months in much of the state, but 2014 has so far been mostly dry, with little precipitation expected, according to the National Weather Service.
FEDERAL FUNDS SOUGHT
In declaring a drought emergency, Brown said he did not know if he would be successful in persuading the federal government to free up funds for drought relief but he would try his best.
"It's important, first of all, to awaken all Californians to the serious matter of drought," he said, also warning of upcoming "conflicts and different perceptions on how water is to be allocated."
Water has long been a contentious issue in California, where it has been diverted from mountain lakes and streams to irrigate farms and slake the thirst of metropolitan areas.
Many of the state's efforts to deal with the problem are controversial, including a $25 billion plan to divert water from above the delta by sending it through a pair of huge tunnels.
For many in the state's $44.7 billion agriculture business, water scarcity is a problem made worse by a recent switch to orchard-style crops such as almonds and olives. Unlike vegetables or cotton, which grow in fields that can be left fallow in dry years, the trees need water every year.
The state's wine-growing regions have had just 23 percent of the rainfall they normally get by this time of year, said Patsy McGaughy, communications director for the wine industry group Napa Valley Vintners, which represents about 500 wineries.
Last year brought enough water that grape-growers were not yet feeling the pinch, she said, but a prolonged drought could affect future crops, if only by making the water scarce that growers use during cold snaps to warm up their plants.
Already, there were signs of competing priorities among groups that contend for water and will be closely watching how state officials use their new flexibility in allocating it.
Assemblywoman Connie Conway, the leader of the Republican minority in the state Assembly who represents a heavily agricultural area in central California, expressed hope that with the declaration more water could go toward "Valley farmers and workers who depend on water to feed the world."
John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, said his group's concern was for the health of salmon and a fishing industry that supports tens of thousands of jobs in California and Oregon.
"If the drought declaration results in more attention to saving the salmon that are in the Sacramento Valley rivers, and which are in dire need of attention, then that is good thing," he said.
Opponents of the water-intensive practice known as fracking, used to extract oil and gas from rock formations deep in the earth, have seized on California's dry conditions, hoping it will put pressure to halt the controversial practice.
"As we see other sectors, like agriculture, struggling, what water rights do oil companies have to engage in fracking? The case can be made to place a moratorium on fracking just in the interests of conserving water," said California Assembly member Mark Levine.
"Water is our most precious commodity, not oil," he said.
There is also concern among power companies that use dams and other technology to create hydroelectric power from churning rivers.
The Sacramento Municipal Utility District, which provides power to the Sacramento area, relies on hydroelectric resources for about a quarter of the electricity it supplies, said Jim Tracy, the utility's chief financial officer.
The utility can purchase power from other sources if hydroelectric power is not available, but if dry conditions persist for several years, consumers' bills may increase, he said.
Doug Obegi, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said California has a complex system that allocates water to areas that laid claim to it first - often over 100 years ago - and which many view the system as unfair.
"Because it's so contentious, there are times when it's hard to make progress," Obegi said.
But in some ways the state has done well. Over the last 40 years, the state's agriculture industry has doubled the revenue per drop of water used, largely from improved efficiency and changes in the plants grown, Obegi said.
(Writing by Sharon Bernstein and Alex Dobuzinskis; Additional reporting by Nichola Groom, Rory Carroll and Ronald Grover; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, G Crosse, Marguerita Choy and Bernard Orr)