In California, Alarm Grows Over Shrinking Water Levels

The drought in California has become so severe that cities are preparing to impose restrictions on water use in homes. In Northern California, the water level in Folsom Lake is so low that remnants of Gold Rush life, which have long been underwater, are now exposed and being collected.

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Last week, we were shivering in depths of the polar vortex. Now another sign that Mother Nature is in charge. This time it's California, where right now it should be rainy season. Instead, there's growing alarm over a persistent lack of rain. The state is suffering its third consecutive dry year.

And as NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, there are calls for the governor to officially declare a drought.


RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: So, how dry is it in California? Just take a look at Folsom Lake, a reservoir that serves the suburbs north of Sacramento. The water level here is so low you can find evidence of communities dating back to the Gold Rush that were covered up when this reservoir was filled. Most of Mormon Island, an old mining town, is still under what's left of the water in Folsom Lake. Still, local residents like Laura Jarecki and her friend, Katrina Trumbull, can stroll on the dry lake bed that is usually covered by more than a hundred feet of water and examine a collection of old bottles, broken pottery, rusted nails, and door hinges.

LAURA JARECKI: There's this beautifully made rock wall that was hand-done that survives under the water all these years. And then when the water goes down, it does not fall apart. It's beautiful.

GONZALES: The water level here is lower than in the winter of 1976-77, which saw one of the worst droughts in the state's history. And now, local water managers are calling on their customers to start conserving, says Shauna Lorance, general manager of the San Juan Water District that serves the suburbs around this lake.

SHAUNA LORANCE: This is not operations as normal. This is a water emergency scenario. And based on that, we're requesting that our customers eliminate all outdoor water use.

GONZALES: That means no watering your lawn or landscape. And if there's no rain by February, Lorance says, the district will take further steps, such as banning car washing and the filling of swimming pools. It could also ask customers to reduce indoor use, kitchen and bath, by 50 percent. Counties all over Northern California - Mendocino, Marin, Sonoma - are imposing or planning to impose similar conservation measures. In Fresno, the local Catholic bishop has even asked people to pray for rain.

And the $44 billion dollar ag industry wants people to know that the drought could hit consumers' pocketbooks as some California farmers may not plant at all. Gayle Holman is spokeswoman for the Westlands Water District, the largest agricultural water district in the country.

GAYLE HOLMAN: The availability of food that's grown right here on U.S. soil, we're going to see that crippled, not to mention that the economic engine that agriculture provides for the state of California is going to be greatly hindered.

GONZALES: That's partly why Senator Dianne Feinstein last month asked Governor Jerry Brown to officially declare a state drought emergency. That would help ease some environmental rules and other regulations governing water use and allocations. But Peter Gleick, a water specialist at the Oakland-based Pacific Institute, says water districts don't have to wait for the governor to act.

PETER GLEICK: Now is the time to be informing customers about what they can do to save water, to use water more efficiently. But it seems that the official water policy is hope for rain rather than take any progressive actions.

GONZALES: For his part, Governor Brown recently appointed a task force to advise him on the drought. But last week, he warned: Don't think that a paper from the governor's office is going to affect the rain. Richard Gonzales, NPR News.

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