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California urges all to cut water use by 20 percent
[February 21, 2009]

California urges all to cut water use by 20 percent

(Sacramento Bee, The (CA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Feb. 21--State water officials sent out an urgent call Friday to all Californians, urging an immediate 20 percent cut in water use to ease a drought that could be the next serious hit to California's economy.

The conservation plea came as state and federal water managers announced delivery forecasts that, combined, are the worst ever in the state.

Results in the farm sector alone could include higher food prices and severe unemployment as thousands of acres are fallowed.

"Bottom line: This is going to be a tough year for us," said Donald Glaser, regional director of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, manager of the federal water system in California There's a glimmer of hope in rain and snow forecast for next week. Yet, on Friday, Glaser told farmers served by the federal Central Valley Project they will get no water this year. This includes customers in the Sacramento Valley because Shasta reservoir, the state's largest, is only 35 percent full.

Officials aimed a warning at those who thought recent storms broke the drought: California is already deep into a third year of drought, with little of winter left to make up ground.

"These storms have been great, but they have done nothing to alleviate the drought," said Lester Snow, director of the California Department of Water Resources.

"You've got to think about water as a precious commodity," he added. "It is relatively easy to reduce your water use by 20 percent. We need to do that now." The State Water Project, which serves some 23 million California residents, also warned customers Friday they will get only 15 percent of normal deliveries.

In response to the dire water forecasts, the city of Roseville on Friday imposed a 20 percent conservation order for all customers. Folsom and the San Juan Water District will soon do the same.

A drought emergency declared by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year remains in effect. If anything, the emergency has only grown. There are plenty of grim numbers to tell the tale: -- January, normally California's wettest month, produced only 31.8 percent of normal precipitation statewide this year.

-- Water officials say without more storms, runoff from the snowpack will be only 57 percent of average -- far from enough to refill reservoirs.

-- With little time left in winter, state climatologists estimate there's only a 10 percent chance the snowpack will return to "normal" conditions.

Adding concern is California's population, which has grown by more than 9 million since the last major drought in 1992. Farmers also have converted more than 500,000 acres to permanent crops like orchards and vineyards, which can't be fallowed.

"We've had a much greater demand component come on board," said Mark Svoboda, climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center in Nebraska, who will visit Woodland on Thursday to host a drought seminar for farmers.

"We don't have any margin for buffering this," he said. "It's a sleeping giant, just waiting to come out of dormancy if we do not get rain and snow over the next one or two months." Many farmers will attempt to tap groundwater. But water tables are already low after heavy pumping last year. Some are trying to buy water from other farmers, trading that's driving up water prices.

Most will have to take land out of production and slash planting of low-value crops like cotton.

Richard Howitt, economist at UC Davis, estimates about 850,000 acres will go unplanted this year -- about 12 percent of irrigated farmland in the Central Valley. This could put 40,000 people out of work.

Mark Borba, who farms 8,500 acres in Fresno County, will leave about 20 percent of his land unplanted. He's reduced wheat and lettuce crops and plans to abandon cotton altogether. He's focusing on keeping his almond trees alive and growing processing tomatoes, which are fetching a good price this year.

Borba is also considering layoffs in his staff of 47 full-time and 135 part-time workers.

"The writing is now on the wall," he said.

Land fallowing and smaller harvests are likely to push food prices higher, said Jim Prevor, editor of Produce Business magazine. But he said farmers elsewhere in the country -- and internationally -- are likely to take up much of the slack.

"For months now, the whole industry has been gearing toward the expectation that there is not going to be enough water in California," Prevor said.

Lester Snow at the Department of Water Resources said he expects all urban water agencies to begin imposing mandatory rationing within 60 days. Many have done so already, including most of the state's large urban areas.

In the Sacramento region, agencies affected by Friday's news include those that depend on Folsom Lake, managed by the Bureau of Reclamation. In addition to its agricultural forecast, the bureau told urban customers they would get just 50 percent of normal water deliveries.

Roseville ordered residents to cut use 20 percent. Commercial customers must reduce landscape irrigation 30 percent. Increased water-waste patrols will ensure compliance.

The San Juan Water District sells Folsom Lake water to neighboring Citrus Heights, Fair Oaks and Orangevale. It will soon require all customers to trim use by 20 percent.

"People should not be irrigating now," said Shauna Lorance, district general manager. "Save the water for later." The city of Folsom will also set a mandatory 20 percent conservation target as part of a "Stage Three" water warning within the next week or two.

The city of Sacramento has among the state's most stable water supplies and has not announced any rationing steps. But a workshop on water conservation is planned for the City Council on Tuesday.

Also threatened by the drought are water flows needed to protect aquatic habitat and endangered species.

------ Call The Bee's Matt Weiser, (916) 321-1264.

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Copyright (c) 2009, The Sacramento Bee, Calif.

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