Gov. Jerry Brown's declaration Friday of a drought emergency in California does not immediately trigger new restrictions on water use on the North Coast, where officials already have begun asking people to voluntarily cut back their use.
Brown, speaking in San Francisco Friday, said California is in perhaps its worst drought since record-keeping began a century ago.
His proclamation states that drought and water shortage are creating "conditions of extreme peril to the safety of persons and property" in the state. The governor asked Californians to reduce their water usage voluntarily by 20 percent.
"We are in an unprecedented and very serious situation," Brown said. "It's important to awaken all Californians to the serious matter of drought and the lack of rain."
State lawmakers had been urging Brown to issue the declaration, which allows California to request a broad emergency declaration from President Barack Obama. That could expedite some water transfers within the system linking the Central Valley and southern California, provide financial assistance and suspend some state and federal regulations.
The drought emergency follows a third straight dry year in California and an almost bone-dry January for most of the state. The Sierra Nevada snowpack measured just 17 percent of normal this week, threatening reservoir supplies across the state.
The North Coast is different from much of the state in that its water comes from moisture that sweeps across the Pacific Ocean in clouds and falls nearby on mountains in California's coast range.
For much of Sonoma and Mendocino counties, the moisture is collected in two reservoirs near Ukiah and Healdsburg and sent to Russian River pumps near Forestville. From there, water is sent south through underground pipelines, stored in massive tanks and then piped under city streets to 600,000 residents and businesses in Santa Rosa, Windsor, Rohnert Park, Cotati, Petaluma and Sonoma and water districts in Sonoma Valley and Marin County.
Lake Sonoma northwest of Healdsburg held 165,000 acre feet of water, or roughly 67 percent of its water-supply capacity, as of Friday. The reservoir would have to drop to 100,000 acre feet to trigger mandatory conservation, said Water Agency spokesman Brad Sherwood.
"Lake Sonoma is really our saving grace right now," Sherwood said. "Without that water supply, without a doubt we'd be facing Draconian mandatory water conservation regulations right now."
Drought conditions already are having a severe impact on the North Coast's agricultural industry.
West county rancher Joe Pozzi said many ranchers are running out of supplemental hay to feed their animals. He said normally this time of year, winter rains green up the pastures and provide that food.
"This is by far the worst I've seen in all my years," Pozzi said.
He said the next 30 days will be critical for ranchers, as without significant rain, they could burn through their remaining supplies of hay. Pozzi said in that event, ranchers could benefit from state or federal assistance.
"The best thing we could get is rain. But it doesn't look like that's going to happen," Pozzi said.
Ranchers and farmers already are eligible for low-interest loans to help cover losses related to forage crop loss, said Tony Linegar, Sonoma County's agricultural commissioner. The loans are administered by the Farm Services Agency of the United States Department of Agriculture.
Linegar said the loans were made available starting in August after the U.S. Drought Monitor listed Sonoma County as experiencing severe water shortage. Linegar said the county is now working to extend that designation, which would extend the loan period.