(Updates with Brown comments in eighth paragraph.)
Jan. 17 (Bloomberg) -- California Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency in the most populous U.S. state after three years of little rain, including the driest on record, left some reservoirs and rivers at critical levels.
The declaration may make it easier to divert water from fisheries and ecologically sensitive areas to farms and ranches and lead to calls on residents to curtail use. If the drought persists, mandatory rationing may be ordered in some areas.
“This is voluntary conservation at this point,” Brown told reporters today in San Francisco. “But as we go down the road, January, February, March, we will keep our eye on the ball and intensify even to the point of mandatory conservation.”
The drought threatens California’s $44.7 billion agricultural industry that produces almost half of all the fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in the U.S. Residents and businesses may face billions of dollars in higher water rates and energy costs, stunting the 10th largest economy in the world that has struggled to rebound from the longest recession since the 1930s.
California’s water managers say that unless the state gets strong winter storms in the next few months, they will be able to deliver only 5 percent of the slightly more than 4 million acre-feet of water requested by agencies that supply more than 25 million Californians and almost a million acres of irrigated farmland. An acre-foot is the volume needed to cover an acre of land one-foot deep with water.
Last year, the state was able to deliver just 35 percent of water requested, down from 65 percent in 2012 and 80 percent in 2011. The last time the state was able to deliver all the water requested was in 2006.
“We are in an unprecedented, very serious situation and people should pause and reflect on how dependent we are on the rain, on nature and on one another,” Brown said.
About two-thirds of Californians get at least part of their flow from northern mountain rains and snow through a network of reservoirs and aqueducts known as the State Water Project, according to the Water Resources Department, the state’s largest water supplier.
The system supplies households and businesses from the San Francisco Bay area to Southern California and irrigates crops in the San Joaquin Valley near the center of the state -- the world’s most productive agricultural region.
Los Angeles, which normally gets almost 15 inches (38 centimeters) of rain a year, got less than 4 inches in 2013, according to the National Weather Service. San Francisco, where 22 inches is typical, got 6. Severe or extreme drought grips 85 percent of California, a federal monitor reported Dec. 24.
The National Weather Service predicts that rainfall amounts in California during the next three months will remain below normal.
The U.S. Agriculture Department this week said almost half of California’s 58 counties were disaster areas because of the drought, making farmers and ranchers in those place eligible for disaster assistance such as low-interest loans that can be used to help cover losses.
A declaration from Brown serves to alert the public to the growing crisis, said Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies.
“The governor is a very powerful messenger,” Quinn said before Brown spoke. “He can send the message that this is a crisis. The governor has a big symbolic stick that he can use so that people change their ways.”
The Water Resources Department sent scientists into northern mountains Jan. 3 to measure how much snow was on the ground. When the crews arrived, they found more bare ground than snow. They reported that the snow pack was 20 percent of average for this time of year and a mere 7 percent of the average the state typically has around April 1, when the snow pack typically is at its highest.
The state’s two biggest population centers, Los Angeles and San Francisco, have built up water reserves and won’t be as hard hit as places such as Sacramento and California’s central valley farming region.
Still, the drought could cause a drop in hydroelectric generation used by power companies such as PG&E Corp. as stream flows dwindle. That could force utilities to sell higher costing -- and higher polluting -- fossil fuel generated power, including natural gas.
In 2012 hydro-power production in California decreased to about 13.8 percent because of drier conditions, Fitch Ratings said in a report earlier this month. That led to an increase in natural gas-fired generation, which rose from 45.4 percent in 2011 to 61.1 in 2012.
The agricultural industry can withstand a short-term drought. In fact, when the last drought struck from 2007 until 2009, farm income actually rose to its highest ever at the time, in part because of high crop prices and strategies farmers and ranchers used, such as fallowing or idling fields, shifting cropping patterns and temporary water transfers, according to a report by the Pacific Institute, a non-profit environmental research group.
Farmers would have a hard time lasting through a sustained drought like the one that struck between 1987 and 1992, when some communities were forced to cut water use by as much as half.
State emergency disaster planners are bracing for a record wildfire season as the lack of snow and rain has left most of the state with tinderbox conditions. California experienced almost a 50 percent increase in the number of wildfires last year from 2012, according to the state Forestry and Fire Protection Department, known as Cal Fire.
Some cities and towns are already taking action.
In Sacramento, the state capital, local officials last week declared a water emergency that requires all residents and businesses to curb water use by as much as 30 percent. Residents are only allowed to wash cars with buckets and may only water lawns twice a week and only during the day.
In nearby Folsom, the local reservoir is so depleted that the building foundations of a gold-rush town that was purposely flooded a half century ago are now visible on dry lakebed. The city has asked residents to cut water use by 20 percent and also is limiting lawn watering and other water uses.
Brown had already activated a task force to prepare for the drought, though he’s acknowledge there is little he can do.
“Governors can’t make it rain,” he told reporters earlier this month.
--Michael B. Marois, with assistance from Alison Vekshin in San Francisco and James Nash in Los Angeles. Editors: Pete Young, Jeffrey Taylor