By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - California Governor Jerry Brown is expected to declare a drought emergency for the parched state on Friday, allowing him to seek federal help as the state faces its third dry winter in a row, according to a Democratic political source and local media.
California has just completed what may turn out to be the driest year on record in many areas, leaving water reservoirs with a fraction of their normal reserves and slowing the normally full American River so dramatically that brush and dry riverbed are showing through in areas normally teeming with fish.
The Folsom Reservoir near Sacramento is so low that the remains of a Gold Rush-era ghost town - flooded to create the lake in the 1950s - are visible for the first time in years.
January and February are the wettest months in much of the state, and so far 2014 has been mostly dry, with little precipitation expected, according to the National Weather Service.
Brown is expected to make the declaration Friday morning at a hastily called news conference in San Francisco. Declaring a drought emergency will allow him to call for conservation measures, and also provide flexibility in deciding the state's water priorities.
A spokesman for the governor would not provide details, but a well-placed political source told Reuters that Brown would be declaring a drought emergency, and several California news agencies, including the San Francisco Chronicle and the Sacramento Bee, have also said that they expect him to make the declaration on Friday.
Brown has repeatedly hinted that he was edging closer to an emergency declaration in recent days, as lawmakers including Democratic U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein urged him take the step.
The state's mountains, where runoff from melting snow provides much water for California's thirsty cities and farms, have just 20 percent of the snow that they normally have at this time of year, officials said.
Some reservoirs are at their lowest levels in years. As of Wednesday, Folsom Reservoir had just half the water it normally has this time of year, according to state records, prompting cities that rely on it - including Sacramento - to implement rationing.
Lake Shasta, the largest reservoir in the state, is also down from its historical average by nearly half, holding just 36 percent of the water it is built to contain. Normally at this time of year, the reservoir holds 55 percent of its capacity, the state said.
Other sources of water, including the massive Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, are also affected, prompting cities to dip into reserves and forcing farmers to scramble. Some public agencies may be able to purchase just 5 percent of the water that they contracted to buy from the state.
Water has long been a contentious issue in California, where it has been diverted from mountain lakes and streams to irrigate farms and slake the thirst of metropolitan areas.
Many of the state's efforts to deal with the problem are controversial, including a $25 billion plan to divert water from above the delta by sending it through a pair of gigantic tunnels.
For many in the state's $44.7 billion agriculture business, water scarcity is a problem made worse by a recent switch to orchard-style crops such as almonds and olives. Unlike vegetables or cotton, which grow in fields that can be left fallow in dry years, the trees need water every year.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)