SAN FRANCISCO — Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency Friday in California as the state struggled with the least amount of rainfall in its 153-year history, reservoirs’ levels fell and firefighters remained on high alert.
“We are in an unprecedented, very serious situation,” said Brown, who asked California residents and businesses to voluntarily reduce their water consumption by 20 percent. “Hopefully, it will rain eventually. But in the meantime, we have to do our part.”
The drought declaration also streamlines the rules for water agencies to transfer extra water from one part of the state to another, easing shortages. It also directs the state to hire more seasonal firefighters, limits the landscaping of highways and raises public awareness.
Brown was governor in 1976 and 1977, one of California’s most severe dry periods in the 20th century. The most recent extended drought was from 1987 to 1992.
The last California governor to declare a drought emergency was Arnold Schwarzenegger, in 2008 and 2009. Brown lifted that declaration in 2011 after a wet winter.
Asked how his prior experience as governor during a drought might help now, he replied, “I don’t know that I kept my notebook from 1977.”
However, the state won’t hesitate to redirect whatever resources are necessary, Brown told reporters. “When the house is burning down,” he said, “you have to pour water on the fire, and if that costs money, we’ll spend money.”
Although California has a Mediterranean climate and periodically experiences drought, current conditions are particularly dry.
The Sierra Nevada snowpack on Thursday was 17 percent of normal. And last year, most cities in the state received the least rain in any living Californian’s lifetime.
For 13 months, a huge high-pressure ridge in the atmosphere has sat off the West Coast, diverting storms that normally would bring winter rain northward to Canada.
As a result, reservoir levels are low, farmers and ranchers are suffering, and fire danger is at an extreme level.
Brown’s declaration won praise from Republicans and Democrats, environmentalists and farmers.
“It’s entirely appropriate for the governor to declare a drought emergency, and we appreciate his timely action,” said Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation. He called for more state spending on dams and reservoirs, which he hopes will be included in a water bond proposed for the November ballot.
“Farmers across California face wrenching decisions today, as well as in coming months,” Wenger said. “Will they have enough water to plant crops, to water their livestock, and keep trees and vines alive?
“An additional concern is how many people they may have to lay off as a result of water shortages. Any way the state and federal governments can provide assistance in adding water to the system will help.”
So far, farmers have been affected more by the dry conditions than most California residents.
Although many residents think that population growth is the main driver of water demand statewide, it actually is agriculture. In an average year, farmers use 80 percent of the water used by people and businesses — 34 million acre-feet from a total of 43 million acre-feet that is diverted from rivers, lakes and groundwater, according to the state Department of Water Resources.
Most of the water goes to irrigate crops. Without rain, many farmers have been heavily pumping groundwater in the Central Valley, and some areas expect that thousands of acres of fields will be fallowed this summer.
Brown’s declaration also:
• Directs state agencies, led by the Department of Water Resources, to execute a statewide campaign to encourage and promote water conservation, with a goal of reducing water usage by 20 percent.
• Requires the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to hire additional seasonal firefighters.
• Urges cities and water districts to update their water management and drought plans.
• Orders all state agencies to conserve water, including placing a moratorium on new, nonessential landscaping at public buildings and along highways.
• Requires state officials to speed approval for voluntary water sales and transfers between willing districts.
• Orders the Department of Water Resources to accelerate spending on water supply and conservation projects that can break ground this year.
California normally receives nearly all its rainfall in the winter.
On Thursday, the drought outlook worsened, as the U.S. Drought Monitor, a weekly update of drought conditions by federal agencies and researchers at the University of Nebraska, classified large sections of Northern California in the fourth-most-severe of five drought categories: “extreme drought.”
The update showed that 63 percent of California’s land is at that level of drought now, up from 27 percent the week before. Worse, scientists at the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center in Maryland issued a 90-day precipitation outlook that said it is likely that California will continue to receive below-normal rainfall at least through April.