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Water crisis hits California as governor declares a drought

| Friday, Jan. 17, 2014, 6:12 p.m.
FILE - In this April 2, 2013 file photo, Davis Nixon, left, and Jose Ponce, walk on the dry shores of Minnequa Lake in Pueblo, Colo. Federal officials have designated portions of 11 drought-ridden western and central states as primary natural disaster areas, highlighting the financial strain the lack of rain is likely to bring to farmers in those regions. The announcement by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Jan. 16, 2014, included counties in Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Kansas, Texas, Utah, Arkansas, Hawaii, Idaho, Oklahoma and California.(AP Photo/Pueblo Chieftain, John Jaques, file)

LOS ANGELES — 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 on 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.

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

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. Fire crews beat back a wildfire southeast of Los Angeles this week, but it was a stark reminder of the dry and dangerous conditions.

“People say that the fire season is starting early, but I guess you could say it never ended,” Scott said. “If you live in the backcountry, come July you probably should be thinking about putting your valuables in storage.”

Droughts also are persisting or intensifying elsewhere in the country.

On Wednesday, federal officials said they were designating portions of Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Kansas, Texas, Utah, Arkansas, Hawaii, Idaho, Oklahoma and California as primary natural disaster areas, highlighting the financial strain facing farmers in those regions.

And despite heavy flooding in Colorado in September, large portions of Colorado and Wyoming are abnormally dry, while ranchers on the plains of southeastern Colorado have severe drought conditions.

Farmers and ranchers in California, the nation's No. 1 farm state, are making hard choices to conserve water. Some cities are in danger of running out. And the first snow survey of the winter found more bare ground than fluffy flakes — a key 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 area's worst drought previously was in the 1890s.

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