Calif. gov declares water emergency in farm area

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Following his declaration last week of a drought in California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaimed on Thursday a state of emergency in nine counties in the state’s farm-rich Central Valley.

“Just last week, I said we would announce regional emergencies wherever the state’s drought situation warrants them, and in the Central Valley an emergency proclamation is necessary to protect our economy and way of life,” the Republican governor said in a statement.

“Central Valley agriculture is a $20 billion a year industry. If we don’t get them water immediately the results will be devastating,” he added. “Food prices, which are already stretching many family budgets, will continue to climb and workers will lose their jobs -- everyone’s livelihood will be impacted in some way.”

His declaration covers Sacramento, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Merced, Madera, Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Kern counties and directs California’s Department of Water Resources to work with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to deliver more water through the State Water Project to where it is most needed.

The Department of Water Resources also is directed to transfer groundwater, tested for public safety, through the California Aqueduct to farmers and for the State Water Resources Control Board to review transfers as quickly as possible.

California has had two years of below-average rainfall and its water woes are being compounded by a federal court order to limit water pumping from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta, the state’s fresh-water hub, to protect a fish species.

Even before Schwarzenegger’s drought declaration, many California water districts had imposed restrictions on water use and many farmers had prepared fields and orchards for reduced water allocations.

The city of Long Beach in Southern California, the city of Roseville in Northern California and the East Bay Municipal Utility District, which serves 1.3 million people in the San Francisco Bay area, have ordered water rationing.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies water for 26 cities and water agencies serving 18 million people in six southern counties, has declared a water supply alert to sustain their reserves.

State officials are aiming for reduced water use locally and regionally through this year in anticipation of lower water supplies next year.

Schwarzenegger, as he did last week, called for lawmakers to back a “comprehensive solution” to the state’s water woes by expanding water infrastructure, specifically public works to capture excess water in wet years to store for dry years.

Schwarzenegger has urged an $11.9 billion bond to finance water projects. Lawmakers are negotiating plans for $9.5 billion to $12 billion in debt for new water infrastructure, but Democrats who control the legislature and its Republican minority are at odds over the need for new dams.

Reporting by Jim Christie; Editing by Leslie Adler