California drought
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Los Angeles - Its reservoir levels receding and its grounds parched, California has fallen officially into drought, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Wednesday, warning that the state might be forced to ration water to cities and regions if conservation efforts did not improve.

The drought declaration - the first for the state since 1991 - includes orders to transfer water from less dry areas to those that are dangerously dry. Mr. Schwarzenegger also said he would ask the federal government for aid to farmers and press water districts, cities and local water agencies to accelerate conservation. Drought conditions have hampered farming, increased water rates throughout California and created potentially dangerous conditions in areas prone to wildfires.

The declaration comes after the driest California spring in 88 years, with runoff in river basins that feed most reservoirs at 41 percent of average levels. It stops short of a water emergency, which would probably include mandatory rationing.

Efforts to capture water have also been hampered by evaporation of some mountain snowpacks that provide water, an effect, state officials say, of global climate change.

A survey this year found that the state's snowpack water content was 67 percent of average, and the Colorado River Basin, from which California draws some water, is coming off a record eight-year drought, contributing to the drop in reservoir storage.

The drought declaration, made when reservoir levels are far higher than they were when Gov. Pete Wilson issued a similar statement in 1991 - is as much a political statement as a practical one. Mr. Schwarzenegger is pressing the Legislature to approve an $11.9 billion water bond as part of the state budget to pay for water storage and to fix the state's aging water delivery systems.

The governor, a Republican, has said that addressing California's seemingly omnipresent water shortage is one of his most urgent priorities, but his ideas have not passed muster with the Legislature in the past.

"This drought is an urgent reminder of the immediate need to upgrade California's water infrastructure," Mr. Schwarzenegger said Wednesday in a prepared statement. "There is no more time to waste because nothing is more vital to protect our economy, our environment and our quality of life."

A bill to require Californians to cut water use 20 percent recently passed the Assembly. The bill, which requires Senate approval, puts most of the onus on residents, and little on the agriculture industry, underscoring tension over conservation between city dwellers and farmers, who consume most of the state's water.

Across the state, many districts and municipalities are instituting or considering recycling, rationing and higher fees for excessive use. For instance, Los Angeles officials recently announced their intentions to begin using heavily cleansed sewage to increase drinking water supplies.

The East Bay Municipal Utility District and the Long Beach Water Department, serving districts at opposite ends of the state, have made water rationing mandatory.

"Some cities and regions are rationing, some are doing nothing and a group of people are in the middle," the director of California's Department of Water Resources, Lester A. Snow, said in a telephone interview. "The governor thought it was important to step out in front and get ahead of this. It is in part to avoid an emergency."

In a telephone interview later, Mr. Schwarzenegger said, "Water is like our gold, and we have to treat it like that."