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Associated Press
Hugh Beggs of Santa Rosa, Calif., searches for coins in the Russian River on Tuesday. California is perhaps in its worst drought in 100 years.

Drought formally declared in California

– California is nearly as dry as it’s ever been. High-water marks rim half-full reservoirs. Cities are rationing water. Clerics are praying for rain. Ranchers are selling cattle, and farmers are fallowing fields.

Gov. Jerry Brown formally proclaimed a drought Friday, saying California is in the midst of perhaps its worst dry spell in a century. He made the announcement in San Francisco amid increasing pressure from lawmakers and as firefighters battled flare-ups in a Southern California wildfire that chased thousands of people from their homes.

The proclamation allows California to request a broad emergency declaration from President Barack Obama, which would expedite some water transfers, provide financial assistance and suspend some state and federal regulations.

Unless the state gets significant rainfall in the next two months, television sets glowing with wildfires could play like reruns throughout the year.

Reservoir levels in the north and central parts of the state were more depleted than in Southern California, but Brown still asked Los Angeles to do its part to conserve – and gave a nod to the politics of water in the vast state.

“The drought accentuates and further displays the conflicts between north and south and between urban and rural parts of the state. So, as governor, I’ll be doing my part to bring people together and working through this.”

Farmers and ranchers in the nation’s No. 1 farm state already are making hard choices to conserve. Some cities are in danger of running out. And the first snow survey of the winter found more bare ground than snow – a barometer of future supply.

“I am a fifth-generation cattle rancher, and it has never been this bad ever in my lifetime – and from my family’s history, it’s never been anywhere close to this bad ever,” said Kevin Kester, 58. He said his family’s records show the last time the area was close to this dry was in 1898.

Kester’s Central California ranch normally gets 20 inches of rain between October and April. It’s gotten about a half-inch of precipitation since late fall. His cattle usually graze on lush green hillsides in winter. Now, they’re eating hay – a proposition that is too expensive to continue for long.

“I hope it’s something we can tell our great-grandkids about, but right now we’re just trying to figure out how we’re going to survive,” he said.

Nearly 10,000 people lost their jobs during the last drought in 2009, said Karen Ross, California’s agriculture secretary.

The drought doesn’t bode well for California’s notorious wildfire season, either.

Previous super-dry years led to catastrophic wildfire seasons in California in 2003 and 2007, said Tom Scott, a natural resources specialist with the University of California system.

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