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Fewer Flushes in California as Brown Sells Emergency Water Cuts

Jan. 18 (Bloomberg) -- In 2009, Cameron Diaz shook up late- night America when she told Jay Leno one of the secrets of living with California’s periodic water shortages involved infrequent toilet flushing, invoking images and colors that were unusually graphic even for adult audiences.

California’s 38 million residents are again being asked to conserve water after the most populous U.S. state suffered its driest year on record in 2013, leaving reservoirs depleted. Governor Jerry Brown, declaring a state of emergency yesterday, asked residents and businesses to voluntarily cut use by 20 percent and warned that mandatory restrictions may follow.

“We are in an unprecedented, very serious situation,” Brown said. “People should pause and reflect on how dependent we are on the rain, on nature and on one another.”

Signs of drought are everywhere from the barren ski slopes of the Sierra Nevada to farm fields fallowed by lack of irrigation crucial to California’s $44.7 billion agricultural industry. If it persists as forecasters predict, the drought threatens major hardships and higher water and energy costs for the world’s 10th largest economy.

For individuals, water conservation steps include flushing the toilet only for solid waste, limiting time in the shower, reusing water from rinsing fruits and vegetables to care for plants, and limiting when and how to water lawns or wash cars. The California Catholic Conference of Bishops has asked its faithful to pray for rain.

Mountain Water

About two-thirds of Californians get at least part of their water from northern mountain rains and snow through a network of reservoirs and aqueducts known as the State Water Project, according to the Water Resources Department, the state’s largest water supplier.

The system supplies households and businesses from the San Francisco Bay area to Southern California and irrigates crops in the San Joaquin Valley near the center of the state -- the world’s most productive agricultural region.

Most of California’s rain falls from November through March. Across most of the state, skies have stayed stubbornly blue for months, leaving reservoirs at 63 percent of average, according to state water data. The snow pack is at 20 percent of average for this time of year.

Los Angeles, which normally gets almost 15 inches (38 centimeters) of rain a year, got less than 4 inches in 2013, according to the National Weather Service. San Francisco, where 22 inches is typical, got 6. The state’s two biggest population centers have built up water reserves and won’t be as hard hit as places such as Sacramento and the Central Valley farming region.

Hydropower Drop

Still, the drought may cause a drop in hydroelectric generation used by power companies such as PG&E Corp. as stream flows dwindle. In 2012, hydropower production in California fell to 13.8 percent from 21.3 percent a year earlier because of drier conditions, Fitch Ratings said in a report this month. That led to an increase in higher-cost natural gas-fired generation, which rose to 61 percent from 45.4 percent.

California’s water managers say that without strong winter storms, they will be able to deliver only 5 percent of the slightly more than 4 million acre-feet of water requested to supply more than 25 million people and almost a million acres of irrigated farmland. An acre-foot is the volume needed to cover an acre of land one-foot deep with water.

Brown’s declaration includes 20 separate orders aimed at preparing the state for a prolonged drought, including setting up a statewide conservation plan.

Fire Threat

“‘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.

State emergency disaster planners are bracing for a record wildfire season as the lack of snow and rain has left most of the state with tinderbox conditions. California experienced almost a 50 percent increase in the number of wildfires last year from 2012, according to the state Forestry and Fire Protection Department, known as Cal Fire.

The drought declaration makes it easier to divert water into the Sate Water Project from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, an ecologically sensitive confluence of two rivers that feed into San Francisco Bay. It bans new landscaping at state buildings and along highways and roads, and gives officials more power to enforce water rights.

Fishing Restrictions

The emergency declaration advises local communities to establish contingency plans and warns that sport fishing in some lakes and rivers that are home to threatened species could be restricted.

The state will draft a plan to provide emergency food supplies, financial assistance, and unemployment services in communities that suffer high unemployment from the drought.

Some cities and towns are already taking action.

In Sacramento, the state capital, local officials last week ordered all residents and businesses to curb water use by as much as 30 percent. Residents may use only buckets to wash cars and can water lawns just twice a week.

In nearby Folsom, the local reservoir is so depleted that the building foundations of a gold-rush town that was purposely flooded a half century ago are now visible on a dry lakebed. The city has asked residents to cut water use by 20 percent.

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