Drought declaration underscores state's water woes

  • Hugh Beggs of Santa Rosa searches for coins in the middle of the Russian River at Healdsburg Veterans Memorial Beach, Tuesday Jan. 14, 2013. During an average winter, the flows near Healdsburg would be at 1500cfs. Tuesday, the flow was 50cfs. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

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."

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