California Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency on Friday, a move that will allow the parched state to seek federal aid as it grapples with what could turn out to be the driest year in recorded state history for many areas.
The dry year California experienced in 2013 has left fresh water reservoirs with a fraction of their normal reserves and slowed the normally full American River so dramatically that brush and dry riverbed are showing through in areas normally teeming with fish.
"We can't make it rain, but we can be much better prepared for the terrible consequences that California's drought now threatens, including dramatically less water for our farms and communities and increased fires in both urban and rural areas," Brown said in a statement.
"I've declared this emergency and I'm calling all Californians to conserve water in every way possible," he said.
The Folsom Reservoir near Sacramento is so low that the remains of a Gold Rush-era ghost town - flooded to create the lake in the 1950s - are visible for the first time in years.
January and February are usually the wettest months in much of the state, but 2014 has so far been mostly dry, with little precipitation expected, according to the National Weather Service.
Brown made the declaration on at a Friday morning news conference in San Francisco. Declaring a drought emergency will allow him to call for conservation measures as well as to provide flexibility in deciding the state's water priorities.
Assemblywoman Connie Conway, the leader of the Republican minority in the state Assembly, welcomed the governor's drought declaration.
"While California still needs a long-term solution to ensure we have a safe, clean and reliable water supply, the drought declaration will definitely help in the short term as the state enters a third consecutive dry year," she said in a statement.
Brown had repeatedly hinted that he was edging closer to an emergency declaration as lawmakers, including Democratic U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, urged him take the step.
The state's mountain ranges, where runoff from melting snow provides much of the water for California's thirsty cities and farms, have just 20 percent of the snow that they normally have at this time of year, officials noted.
Some of the state's reservoirs are at their lowest levels in years. As of Wednesday, Folsom Reservoir had just half the water it normally has this time of year, according to state records, prompting cities that rely on it - including the state capital, Sacramento - to implement rationing.
Lake Shasta, the largest reservoir in California, is also down from its historical average by nearly half, holding just 36 percent of the water it is built to contain. Normally at this time of year, the reservoir holds 55 percent of its capacity, the state said.
Other sources of water, including the massive Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, are also affected, prompting cities to dip into reserves and forcing farmers to scramble. Some public agencies may be able to purchase just 5 percent of the water that they contracted to buy from the state.
Water has long been a contentious issue in California, where it has been diverted from mountain lakes and streams to irrigate farms and slake the thirst of metropolitan areas.
Many of the state's efforts to deal with the problem are controversial, including a $25 billion plan to divert water from above the delta by sending it through a pair of gigantic tunnels.
For many in the state's $44.7 billion agriculture business, water scarcity is a problem made worse by a recent switch to orchard-style crops such as almonds and olives. Unlike vegetables or cotton, which grow in fields that can be left fallow in dry years, the trees need water every year.
(Writing by Sharon Bernstein and Alex Dobuzinskis; editing by Cynthia Johnston, G Crosse)