California water allocation forecast hits record-low level

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A worsening drought in California will likely force a first-ever complete cutoff this year in state-supplied water sold to 29 irrigation districts, public water agencies and municipalities up and down the state, officials said Friday.

Although the state Water Resources Department typically ends up supplying more water than first projected for the year ahead, its forecast for a "zero allocation" in 2014 is unprecedented since the agency began delivering water in 1967.

The announcement came a day after the agency said that water content in the snow pack of the Sierra Nevada mountain range - a key measure of surface water supplies - stood at just 12 percent of average for this time of year.

That marked the lowest level recorded in more than half a century, despite a late-arriving Sierra winter storm.

Barring an unexpected turn-around in California's current dry spell, the state faces its worst-ever water supply outlook, the agency said.

Governor Jerry Brown, whose drought emergency declaration two weeks ago capped the driest year on record for the state, said the agency's zero allocation was a "stark reminder that California's drought is real."

On Thursday Brown urged residents to redouble conservation efforts, suggesting they avoid flushing toilets unnecessarily and to turn off the tap while soaping up in the shower or shaving.

Some 25 million people, roughly two-thirds of California's residents, and more than 750,000 acres of farmland get some or all of their drinking and irrigation supplies from the state Water Resources Department.

The water originates from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in northern California, fed by rainfall and snow-melt runoff from the Sierras.

The water is delivered to local agencies by way of a sprawling network of reservoirs, pipelines, aqueducts and pumping stations known as the State Water Project.

While a return to wetter weather in the months ahead could quickly ease the water crunch, the zero allotment announced on Friday was greeted with alarm by the project's water users.

"For the first time in history, we are facing the real possibility of getting no water from the State Water Project. It's a very serious situation," said Terry Erlewine, general manager of the State Water Contractors.

The president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, Paul Wenger, called the news "a terrible blow."

Each local agency will adapt in its own way, making up for some of the difference with groundwater reserves, buying water from other sources, using carry-over supplies conserved from the year before and increased conservation.

Besides the 29 local agencies that purchase water from the State Water Project, a separate group of Sacramento Valley farm districts whose rights to delta water predate construction of the State Water Project - and are thus guaranteed - could see their deliveries cut in half for the year, the agency warned.

Deliveries to the so-called "settlement contractors" were last reduced in 1992.

The other major supplier of water from the delta - and a more important one for California farmers producing over half of the fruit, vegetables and nuts grown in the United States - is the federal government's Bureau of Reclamation.

That agency is slated to announce its initial allocation from the Central Valley Project next month, and it too is expected to be dismal.

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