For California's 38 million people and $45 billion agriculture industry, continued drought could spell disaster. (Image courtesy

LOS ANGELES — California is nearly as dry as it’s ever been. High water marks rim half-full reservoirs. Cities are rationing water. Clerics are praying for rain. Ranchers are selling cattle, and farmers are fallowing fields.

For California’s 38 million people and $45 billion agriculture industry, continued drought could spell disaster. (Image courtesy

Gov. Jerry Brown formally proclaimed a drought Friday, saying California is in the midst of perhaps its worst dry spell in a century. He made the announcement in San Francisco amid increasing pressure from lawmakers and as firefighters battled flare-ups in a Southern California wildfire that chased thousands of people from their homes.

Unless the state gets significant rainfall in the next two months, television sets glowing with wildfires could play like reruns throughout the year.

Reservoir levels in the north and central parts of the state were more depleted than in Southern California, but Brown still asked Los Angeles to do its part to conserve — and gave a nod to the politics of water in the vast state.

“The drought accentuates and further displays the conflicts between north and south and between urban and rural parts of the state. So, as governor, I’ll be doing my part to bring people together and working through this.”

Farmers and ranchers in the nation’s No. 1 farm state already are making hard choices to conserve. Some cities are in danger of running out of water. And the first snow survey of the winter found more bare ground than fluffy white stuff — a key barometer of future supply.

“I am a fifth-generation cattle rancher, and it has never been this bad ever in my lifetime — and from my family’s history, it’s never been anywhere close to this bad ever,” said Kevin Kester, 58. He said his family’s records show the area’s worst drought previously was in the 1890s.

Kester’s Central California ranch normally gets 20 inches of rain between October and April. It’s gotten about a half-inch of precipitation since late fall. His cattle usually graze on lush green hillsides in winter. Now, they’re eating hay instead — a proposition that is too expensive to continue for long.

“I hope it’s something we can tell our great-grandkids about, but right now we’re just trying to figure out how we’re going to survive,” he said.

The drought doesn’t bode well for California’s notorious wildfire season, either.

Previous super-dry years led to catastrophic wildfire seasons in California in 2003 and 2007, said Tom Scott, a natural resources specialist with the University of California system. Fire crews beat back a wildfire northeast of Los Angeles earlier this week, but it was a stark reminder of the dry and dangerous conditions.

“People say that the fire season is starting early, but I guess you could say it never ended,” Scott said. “If you live in the backcountry, come July you probably should be thinking about putting your valuables in storage.”

Droughts also are persisting or intensifying elsewhere in the U.S.

On Wednesday, federal officials said they were designating portions of Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Kansas, Texas, Utah, Arkansas, Hawaii, Idaho, Oklahoma and California as primary natural disaster areas, highlighting the financial strain facing farmers in those regions.

Even in the moist Pacific Northwest, things were a little bit drier.

In Seattle, rainfall dropped by nearly 70 percent in December, with just 1.66 inches falling. Ski resorts are opening several weeks late, and a Bavarian-themed town in the Cascade Mountains had to modify its annual “ice fest” because there isn’t enough snow on the ground for activities. A plan to truck in snow was scrapped with high temperatures forecast this weekend.

And despite heavy flooding in Colorado in September, large portions of Colorado and Wyoming are abnormally dry, while ranchers on the plains of southeastern Colorado have severe drought conditions.

In California, the governor’s drought declaration will help battle unemployment in the agriculture industry as fields are left fallow.

Nearly 10,000 people lost their jobs during the last drought in 2009, said Karen Ross, California’s agriculture secretary. The drought also increases the burden on food banks in rural and agricultural communities.

The lack of rain also could have long-standing implications for the demand for crops that are almost entirely exclusive to California.

Eighty percent of the world’s almonds, for example, are grown in California, and the Almond Board of California receives 3 cents for every pound sold to build future demand for the nut. With many almond growers having to irrigate their crops three months early, a smaller crop might put a dent in the board’s ability to market almonds as broadly as it has been, said David Phippen, an almond grower who serves on the board.

“There’s huge implications everywhere you look,” he said. “What about five years down the road?”

Santa Monica-based environmental watchdog Heal the Bay issued a news release Friday shortly after the governor’s declaration offering tips to help conserve water.

Here they are:

1) Reduce leaks. As a homeowner or renter, the best way to determine if you have a leak is to turn off all taps and see if the dials still turn on your water meter. If they do, you have a leak. You are usually responsible for leaks from the meter to your property. Some municipalities and water agencies will adjust bills when leaks have been repaired.

The average California city leaks 8 percent to 10 percent of its water because of old pipes underground, wasting not only water but the embedded energy used in pumping and treating the water.

2) Upgrade your landscape and irrigation. Still living in the 1950s with a large front grass lawn? During dry conditions many are letting their lawns die, but sprinkler systems eventually creep back on. There are more appropriate landscape choices. Some water agencies are actually paying people to remove grass and replace it with plants that thrive in dry conditions and don’t require constant watering and mowing. It’s also an opportunity to reset your front yard so it isn’t just flat and shedding water onto the street and into our oceans. Try capturing water with swales while putting it back into the ground. The use of mulch with drip irrigation or micro-sprinklers further eliminates water usage and runoff onto the street.

3) Install stormwater and rainwater catchments. Droughts are often followed by flooding. Even within droughts there are wet periods, like three years ago when heavy rains allowed storage to refill and this last November when the San Francisco Bay area flooded. We should be prepared to capture and use what comes when it rains. We need to be prepared with systems in place and not miss opportunities. Many cities offer rain barrels or cisterns at a discount, including Santa Monica.

4) Check the toilet. A little-known law takes effect this year requiring the replacement of all water-wasting toilets with 1.6-gallon versions. Millions of old toilets were replaced with incentives in the ‘90s, but many of those are now outdated and leak through worn flapper valves. Check your tank by putting vegetable dye into the tank and wait to see if it shows up in the bowl. These silent leaks add up and can be easily fixed with replacing flapper valves or new high efficiency 1.2-gallon toilets.

5) Go greywater. Greywater systems capture everything but your toilet and kitchen water. The systems can now be legally used in California within certain guidelines. This water can be reused for irrigation and shouldn’t just be dumped into the stormdrain. Some cities are offering landscape meters, acknowledging the larger amount of water wasted outdoors.

“If we look at this dry time across the West it can be seen as a window into the future,” officials with Heal the Bay said. “And our future may look a lot like Australia’s. Faced with long-term drought, the nation reduced demand to 30-50 gallons per day per person. Investments were made, some good and some bad, and prices rose. Policy changes were made and water catchment systems, tanks and cisterns were put into place. When the drought turned to flood, water was captured in a decentralized manner.”

Daily Press Editor-in-Chief Kevin Herrera contributed to this report.

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