Facing intense drought, Calif. declares state of emergency

Officials restrict water use; farmers delay planting

Images from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show California’s Sierra Nevada range covered in snow in January 2013 and mostly dry this week.
noaa/AFP/Getty Images
Images from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show California’s Sierra Nevada range covered in snow in January 2013 and mostly dry this week.

NORDEN, Calif. — This winter is so unusual that California cattle ranchers have had to sell portions of their herd for lack of water. Sacramento and other municipalities have imposed severe water restrictions. Wildfires erupted this week in forests that are usually too wet to ignite. Ski resorts that normally open in December remain closed; at one here in the Sierra Nevada that is actually open, a bear wandered onto a slope full of skiers last week, apparently refusing to hibernate because of the balmy weather.

On Friday, Governor Jerry Brown made it official: California is suffering from a drought, perhaps one for the record books. The water shortage has Californians trying to deal with problems that usually arise midsummer. With little snow in the forecast, experts are warning that this drought, after one of the driest years on record last year, could be as disruptive as the severe droughts of the 1970s.

Under state law, that would allow the governor to “waive laws or regulations and expedite some funding,” said Jeanine Jones, deputy drought manager for the state Department of Water Resources. “It does not create a new large pot of money for drought response or make federal funding available.”


Signs of drought affect vast sectors of the economy. A sense of dread is building among farmers, many of whom have let fields go fallow. Without more water, an estimated 200,000 acres of prime agriculture land will go unplanted in Fresno County, according to Westlands Water District officials. Cattle ranchers accustomed to letting cows graze on rain-fed grass have had to rely on bought hay or have winnowed herds.

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Clergy of all faiths have been exhorting the faithful to pray for rain. “May God open the heavens, and let his mercy rain down upon our fields and mountains,” Bishop Jaime Soto, the state’s Roman Catholic conference president, said last week. The Sacramento Valley chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations followed suit by announcing that area mosques would offer the traditional rain prayer, Salatul Istisqa.

California gets much of its water from the snowpack of the Sierra Nevada, so towns such as Norden have a front-row view of the problem. The base at Donner Ski Ranch, a family-owned resort with limited snow-making capacity, was less than a foot of snow this week. Usually, it would be several feet deep in January, like at other resorts in the Sierras.

“This is the worst I’ve ever seen,” said Lincoln Kauffman, 55, the resort’s general manager, who has been skiing in these mountains since the early 1970s. “I think 1976 and 1977 were comparable to this — that was a really tough one. I remember the restrictions on showers and flushing toilets.”

Near Sacramento, the Folsom Lake water reservoir has shriveled so much that remnants of a Gold Rush-era ghost town are visible. The San Juan Water District, which serves areas near Sacramento, has asked customers to cut water usage by 20 percent.