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a dry year: California is grappling with what could turn out to be the driest year in recorded state history for many areas. That means lifts remained idle at Donner Ski Ranch, at top, while a marina on Lake Folsom sat dry and the Russian River in Healdsburg was so low that Hugh Beggs of Santa Rosa could stay mostly dry as he searched for coins in the middle of the river.

Max Whittaker • New York Times; KENT PORTER, Santa Rosa Press Democrat,

A marina on Lake Folsom sits dry and useless as an unseasonably dry winter in California stokes fears of a severe drought, near Folsom, Calif., Jan. 15, 2014. Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency on Friday, which will allow California to seek federal aid as it grapples with what could turn out to be the driest year in recorded state history for many areas. (Max Whittaker/the New York Times)

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Lifts sit idle at Donner Ski Ranch, not far from Lake Tahoe, as an unseasonably dry winter in California stokes fears of a severe drought, near Norden, Calif., Jan. 15, 2014. Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency on Friday, which will allow California to seek federal aid as it grapples with what could turn out to be the driest year in recorded state history for many areas. (Max Whittaker/The New York Times)

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Gov. Jerry Brown declares a drought state of emergency while speaking in San Francisco, Friday, Jan. 17, 2014. With a record-dry year, reservoir levels under strain and no rain in the forecast, California Gov. Jerry Brown formally proclaimed the state in a drought emergency Friday, confirming what many already knew. Brown made the announcement in San Francisco amid increasing pressure in recent weeks from the state's lawmakers, including Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

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California declares a drought emergency

  • Article by: NORIMITSU ONISHI and MALIA WOLLAN
  • New York Times NORDEN, CALIF.
  • January 17, 2014 - 11:43 PM

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 broke out this week in forests that are usually too wet to ignite. Ski resorts that normally open in December are still 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, Gov. 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. 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.

‘May God open the heavens’

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.”

Signs of drought are everywhere, and 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 agricultural 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 purchased hay or reduce their herds.

Clergy members have been exhorting the faithful to pray for precipitation. “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 announced that area mosques would offer the traditional rain prayer, Salatul Istisqa.

California gets much of its water from the snowpack of the 400-mile Sierra Nevada, so towns like Norden have a front-row view of the problem. The base at family-owned Donner Ski Ranch was less than a foot of snow this week. Usually, it would be several feet deep in January, as with other resorts in the Sierras.

“This is the worst I’ve ever seen,” said Lincoln Kauffman, 55, the resort’s general manager.

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 communities near Sacramento and relies on water from Folsom Lake, has asked customers to reduce their water usage by 20 percent and in some areas cease all outdoor watering.

In Glendora, near Los Angeles, and in Humboldt County in far Northern California, firefighters have been battling wildfires that normally do not happen during the winter. “We still have extreme fire conditions throughout the state in January,” said Dennis Mathisen, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “This is definitely not the norm for us.”

Supplying water to 25 million people

The snowpack plays a critical part in what is one of the world’s most sophisticated and complex water delivery systems, supplying water to more than 25 million people and the $44.7 billion agricultural industry. The snow that piles up on the Sierra Nevada’s 400-mile range during the winter acts as a reserve that start to melt in the spring. The melting snow drains into rivers that feed reservoirs below, providing water to densely populated communities hundreds of miles south in Southern California.

Given the snowpack’s significance, winter snow surveys are carried out monthly starting in January. After this month’s survey, the Department of Water Resources said the snowpack was only 20 percent of the historical average.

The lack of precipitation has been caused in large part by a high-pressure zone stretching along the coast from Oregon to northern Mexico. The zone acts like a mountain range, blocking storm systems from striking land.







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