SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Amid severe drought conditions, California officials announced Friday that they
would not send any water from the state's vast reservoir system to local agencies
beginning this spring, an unprecedented move that affects drinking water
supplies for 25 million people and irrigation for 1 million acres of farmland.
The announcement marks the first time in the 54-year history
of the State Water Project that such an action has been taken, but it does not
mean that every farm field will turn to dust and every city tap will run dry.
The 29 agencies that draw from the state's water-delivery
system have other sources, although those also have been hard-hit by the
Many farmers in California's Central Valley, one of the most
productive agricultural regions in the country, also draw water from a separate
system of federally run reservoirs and canals, but that system also will
deliver just a fraction of its normal water allotment this year.
The announcement affects water deliveries planned to begin
this spring, and the allotment could increase if weather patterns change and
send more storms into the state.
Nevertheless, Friday's announcement puts an exclamation
point on California's water shortage, which has been building during three
years of below-normal rain and snow.
"This is the most serious drought we've faced in modern
times," said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources
Control Board. "We need to conserve what little we have to use later in
the year, or even in future years."
State Department of Water Resources Director Mark Cowin said
there simply is not enough water in the system to meet the needs of farmers,
cities and the conservation efforts that are intended to save dwindling
populations of salmon and other fish throughout Northern California.
For perspective, California would have to experience heavy
rain and snowfall every other day from now until May to get the state back to
its average annual precipitation totals, according to the Department of Water
"These actions will protect us all in the long
run," Cowin said during a news conference that included numerous state and
federal officials, including those from wildlife and agricultural agencies.
Friday's announcement came after Gov. Jerry Brown's official drought declaration in mid-January, a decision that cleared the way for state
and federal agencies to coordinate efforts to preserve water and send it where
it is needed most. The governor urged Californians to reduce their water use by
It also reflects the severity of the dry conditions in the
nation's most populous state. Officials say 2013 was the state's driest
calendar year since records started being kept, and this year is heading in the
A snow survey on Thursday in the Sierra Nevada, one of the
state's key water sources, found the water content in the meager snowpack is
just 12 percent of normal. Reservoirs are lower than they were at the same time
in 1977, which is one of the two previous driest water years on record.
State officials say 17 rural communities are in danger of a
severe water shortage within four months. Wells are running dry or reservoirs
are nearly empty in some communities. Others have long-running problems that
predate the drought.
The timing of Friday's historic announcement was important:
State water officials typically announce they are raising the water allotment
on Feb. 1, but this year's winter has been so dry they wanted to ensure they
could keep the remaining water behind the dams. The announcement also will give
farmers more time to determine what crops they will plant this year and in what
Farmers and ranchers throughout the state already have felt
the drought's impact, tearing out orchards, fallowing fields and trucking in
alfalfa to feed cattle on withered range land.
Without deliveries of surface water, farmers and other water
users often turn to pumping from underground aquifers. The state has no role in
regulating such pumping.
"A zero allocation is catastrophic and woefully
inadequate for Kern County residents, farms and businesses," Ted Page,
president the Kern County Water Agency's board, said in a statement.
"While many areas of the county will continue to rely on ground water to
make up at least part of the difference, some areas have exhausted their
Groundwater levels already have been stressed, after pumping
accelerated during the dry winter in 2008 and 2009.
"The challenge is that in last drought we drew down groundwater
resources and never allowed them to recover," said Heather Cooley, water
program co-director for the Pacific Institute, a water policy think tank in
Oakland. "We're seeing long term, ongoing declining groundwater levels,
and that's a major problem."
Many towns and cities already have ordered severe cutbacks
in water use.
Meanwhile, the Colorado River, which feeds Nevada's Lake Mead, is
drying up, meaning the lake is rapidly shrinking. The lake provides water for
20 million people in southern Nevada, southern California and Arizona - and
it has lost 4 trillion gallons of water since 2000.
Lake Mead is expected to drop at least another 20 feet this year, and that would devastate
Las Vegas. Ninety percent of the area's water comes from the lake.
Already, at least
one of the two pipes sending water to the city could soon be above water.
In response, Nevada is rushing to build a third pipe even deeper.
"The rate at
which our weather patterns are changing is so dramatic that our ability to adapt
to it is really crippled," Pat Mulroy, the general manager of the Southern
Nevada Water Authority, told CBS News.
With other rivers in California reduced to a trickle, fish populations also
are being affected. Eggs in salmon-spawning beds of the American River near
Sacramento were sacrificed after upstream releases from Folsom Dam were
severely cut back.
The drought is highlighting the traditional tensions between
groups that claim the state's limited water for their own priorities - farmers,
city residents and conservationists.
Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish
and Wildlife, urged everyone to come together during the crisis.
"This is not about picking between delta smelt and
long-fin smelt and chinook salmon, and it's not about picking between fish and
farms or people and the environment," he said. "It is about really
hard decisions on a real-time basis where we may have to accept some impact now
to avoid much greater impact later."