BY JASON DEAREN The Associated Press
SAN FRANCISCO — Gov. Jerry Brown formally proclaimed California in a drought Friday, saying the state is in the midst of perhaps its worst dry spell in a century and the conditions are putting residents and their property in "extreme peril."
Brown made the announcement in San Francisco amid increasing pressure from lawmakers, including Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and as firefighters chased flare-ups in a Southern California wildfire that has kept 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.
It also cuts red tape for the state’s water managers, allowing them to more quickly move water to rights-holders. And it qualifies agriculture interests for federal programs meant to help with unemployment and financial losses.
"Today, I’m declaring a drought emergency in the state of California because we’re facing perhaps the worst drought California has ever seen since records began being kept 100 years ago," Brown said.
The drought and water shortage are creating "conditions of extreme peril to the safety of persons and property" in the state, the governor’s proclamation said. For example, some cities are in danger of running out of water, and people in farming communities that will not be able to find work will need assistance getting food.
Droughts also are persisting or intensifying elsewhere in the U.S. On Wednesday, federal officials said they were designating portions of 11 drought-ridden western and central states as primary natural disaster areas, highlighting the financial strain facing farmer in those regions.
Brown spoke against the backdrop of a chart with statewide average precipitation by year dating to 1970 and a satellite image of California in January 2013 and January 2014 side by side that showed the state’s dwindling snowpack.
He encouraged people to voluntarily conserve water but said his administration is considering a mandatory conservation order.
"I think the drought emphasizes that we do live in an era of limits, that nature has its boundaries," the governor said.
The U.S. Drought Monitor has reported extreme drought conditions in central and northern California, and there has been little snowfall so far this winter.
Precipitation in most of the state is less than 20 percent of normal, and reservoirs are dwindling. Forecasts suggest the dry spell could continue, exacerbating the already heightened fire danger.
On Friday, firefighters had a damaging wildfire in the foothill suburbs northeast of Los Angeles about 30 percent contained.
The fire around Glendora has swept through about 2 1/2 square miles of tinder-dry chaparral and destroyed five homes.
The National Weather Service said some red-flag warnings of extreme fire danger due to low humidity and gusty Santa Ana winds would last until Friday evening.
The move by the governor also helps battle unemployment created by drought in the state’s agriculture industry.
Karen Ross, California’s agriculture secretary, said people lose their jobs during drought as more fields are fallowed. Food banks also see higher demand during drought.
"In 2009, during the last drought ... we saw 9,800 people who normally would have worked in agriculture who didn’t."
By declaring a drought, the state makes farmers and unemployed farm workers eligible for potential federal programs meant to ease the burden.
The state’s agriculture industry applauded the governor’s action.
"After several consecutive dry years, compounded by regulations that have restricted water deliveries through the federal Central Valley Project and the California State Water Project, the people who live and work in agricultural areas of the valley are facing a disaster," said Tom Birmingham, general manager of Westlands Water District, the nation’s largest federal irrigation district.
A leading Republican lawmaker praised Brown’s announcement but said the excessively dry conditions already have had a deep impact in Central Valley farming communities.
"Today’s drought declaration is better late than never," said Connie Conway of Tulare, the Assembly minority leader.
She said the declaration will be a "sign of hope" for farmers and field hands in one of the nation’s most important agricultural regions.
The announcement by the U.S. Department of Agriculture regarding primary natural disaster areas included counties in Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Kansas, Texas, Utah, Arkansas, Hawaii, Idaho, Oklahoma and California. The designation means eligible farmers can qualify for low-interest emergency loans from the department.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he and Obama want to ensure that agriculture remains a bright spot in the nation’s economy.
Officials with the U.S. Drought Monitor say a ridge of high pressure is to blame for keeping storms off the Pacific coast and guiding them to the East. Poor snowpack also is threatening regions dependent on major western rivers.