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As California's drought worsens, a sense of dread grows

Norimitsu Onishi,Malia Wollan
Steve Yeater

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 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 open, a bear wandered onto a slope full of skiers last week, apparently not hibernating 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 in 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 are everywhere, affecting 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 reduce their herds.

Clergy of all faiths 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 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 like this one 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 reservoir's level has fallen so much that remnants of a Gold Rush-era ghost town are now 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 Santa Cruz, about 75 miles south of San Francisco, the city banned restaurants from providing customers with drinking water unless it is requested. In Glendora, near Los Angeles, but also 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."

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 to the state's farmers and water boards, winter snow surveys are carried out monthly starting every January. In a ritual that often makes it on to the front pages of newspapers in California, the chief snow surveyor, Frank Gehrke, measures the depth of the snowpack every month by plunging aluminum tubes into the same spot along Highway 50 in the Sierra.

After the survey this month, 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. Instead, storms are pushed north into Canada and Alaska, contributing to the extreme cold weather seen in recent weeks across much of the Midwest and Northeast. Though such high-pressure zones are normal during the winter, they usually dissipate and reform, allowing storms to blanket the state in snow and rain.

"We've got a ridge of high pressure sitting overhead, and it is not budging," said Diana Henderson, a forecaster with the National Weather Service.

In Truckee, a ski resort town near here, the Back Country store was holding a clearance sale on mountain bikes, which some people were riding this winter instead of skiing.

"These should be sitting on the shelves this time of the year," an employee, Aaron Breitbard, said of CO2 cartridges used to inflate flat tires in an emergency. "But they've been selling. And, as you can see, we're building one bike and repairing another one."

About 100 miles west of here, the relics of Red Bank, a Gold Rush-era town that, according to California State Parks, included a mine, winery and dairy, now lie exposed on the dry lakebed. A few dozen locals had come to look at nails, glass and bricks scattered here and there.

"Everybody's been talking about how low the lake is," said Ramone Velazquez, who was visiting with his wife, Mariana, and their young daughter, Juliet.

"I'm really worried about how this drought is going to affect us," he said. "I heard about the drought in the '70s, and how people couldn't water their lawns and wash their cars. They could take only one-minute showers."

"Can you believe that?" his wife said. "We're used to taking an hour."

 


By NORIMITSU ONISHI and MALIA WOLLAN
The New York Times