Lake Oroville, largest reservoir in the State Water Project, has fallen to just 36 percent of capacity. (Dan Brekke/KQED News)
Lake Oroville, largest reservoir in the State Water Project, has fallen to just 36 percent of capacity. (Dan Brekke/KQED News)

Here’s the most dramatic development yet in California’s Great Drought of 2013-14: The state Department of Water Resources announced today that for the first time in the 54-year history of the State Water Project, it can’t promise to deliver a single drop of water to its city and farm customers.

The department’s announcement said its allotment of water to agencies that serve 25 million people and irrigate about 750,000 acres of farmland will be cut to 0 percent. The department had already put its customers on notice that this year would be hard: before today, it was only promising a 5 percent allotment of the amount of the 4.2 million acre-feet of water that agencies have contracted for.

Some customer agencies still have a small amount of “carryover” water from previous years — water that had been allotted to the agencies but which they haven’t used — and the state will allow them to tap those supplies.

The Department of Water Resources decision came at the same time the California Water Resources Control Board announced that it’s approving emergency measures to preserve the state’s shrinking water supplies.

The board said it has approved a petition from state and federal water managers to reduce the amount of water flowing out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in February. That means less water will need to be released from upstream reservoirs to preserve higher flows mandated by earlier water-quality rulings.

The board also announced that starting next week, it will begin ordering some water-rights holders to curtail their diversion of water from streams in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys. The orders will target “junior” water-rights holders, those whose claim to divert water was established more recently than “senior” rights holders.

Here’s the AP’s latest writethrough on the story:

Juliet Williams
Associated Press

SACRAMENTO — Amid California’s most crippling drought of modern times, state officials on Friday announced they won’t allocate water to agencies that serve 25 million people and nearly 1 million acres of farmland.

The announcement marks the first time in the 54-year history of the State Water Project that such an action has been taken. State Department of Water Resources Director Mark Cowin said the action was being taken to conserve the little water than remains behind the dams in the state’s vast system of reservoirs.

“Simply put, there’s not enough water in the system right now for customers to expect any water this season from the project,” Cowin said in a statement that was released as numerous state and federal officials announced a variety of actions related to California’s drought.

Most of the 29 agencies serving the towns and farms that draw from the State Water Project have other, local sources of water. But the total cutoff of state water deliveries this spring and summer could have a national impact because it will affect farms in one of the nation’s richest agricultural belts.

“These actions will protect us all in the long run,” Cowin said during the news conference.

Friday’s action comes after Gov. Jerry Brown made an official drought declaration, clearing the way for state and federal agencies to coordinate efforts to preserve water and send it to where it is needed most. The governor urged Californians to reduce their water use by 20 percent.

It also reflects the severity of the dry conditions in the nation’s most populous state. Officials say 2013 was the state’s driest calendar year since records started being kept, and this year is heading in the same direction.

A snow survey on Thursday in the Sierra Nevada, one of the state’s key water sources, found the water content in the meager snowpack is just 12 percent of normal. Reservoirs are lower than they were at the same time in 1977, which is one of the two previous driest water years on record.

State officials have said that 17 rural communities are in danger of a severe water shortage within four months. Wells are running dry or reservoirs are nearly empty in some communities. Others have long-running problems that predate the drought.


Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke is a blogger, reporter and editor for KQED News, responsible for online breaking news coverage of topics ranging from California water issues to the Bay Area's transportation challenges. In a newsroom career that began in Chicago in 1972, Dan has worked as a city and foreign/national editor for The San Francisco Examiner, editor at Wired News, deputy editor at Wired magazine, managing editor at TechTV as well as for several Web startups.

Since joining KQED in 2007, Dan has reported, edited and produced both radio and online features and breaking news pieces. He has shared in two Society of Professional Journalists Norcal Excellence in Journalism awards — for his 2012 reporting on a KQED Science series on water and power in California, and in 2014, for KQED's comprehensive reporting on the south Napa earthquake.

In addition to his 44 years of on-the-job education, Dan is a lifelong student of history and is still pursuing an undergraduate degree.

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