The situation could improve slightly if more rain falls over the next few weeks, and officials will know by mid-March if they can release more irrigation supplies to growers.
Farmers in the nation's No. 1 agriculture state predicted it would cause consumers to pay more for their fruits and vegetables, which would have to be grown using expensive well water.
"Water is our life - it's our jobs and it's our food," said Ryan Jacobsen, executive director of the farm bureau in Fresno County. "Without a reliable water supply, Fresno County's No. 1 employer - agriculture - is at great risk."
The drought would cause an estimated $1.15 billion dollar loss in agriculture-related wages and eliminate as many as 40,000 jobs in farm-related industries in the San Joaquin Valley alone, where most of the nation's produce and nut crops are grown, said Lester Snow, director of the Department of Water Resources.
Jeff Peracchi, a pomegranate and grape grower in Huron, said he was laying off employees because without water, there wouldn't be much fruit to pick.
"I can't just say I won't farm this year - I have to do something. But I'm having to lay off guys who have been with us for years," Peracchi said. "At this point, I'm planning to farm to keep the fruit as healthy as I can, but I'm not sure I'm going to be able to be profitable."
California's agricultural industry typically receives 80 percent of all the water supplies managed by the federal government - everything from far-off mountain streams and suburban reservoirs. The state supplies drinking water to 23 million residents and 755,000 acres of irrigated farmland.
Farms supplied by flows from the state would still get 15 percent of their normal deliveries, but the combined state and federal cutbacks would leave more than 1 million acres of fields and orchards with no aboveground water supply, Snow said.
The state depends on winter snow in the Sierra Nevada for much of its summer water supply, but January was one of the driest winter months on record. This year, both the state and federal reservoirs have reached their lowest level since 1992.
Water for crops also was restricted by court decisions cutting back deliveries that flow through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a freshwater estuary home to the delta smelt, a fish scientists believe is on the brink of extinction.
Dwindling supplies would have to be routed to cities to ensure residents, hospitals and fire crews have enough to meet minimum health and safety needs, said Don Glaser, the federal reclamation bureau's Mid-Pacific Region director.
The water shortages are so severe most cities will have to start mandatory ration programs by summertime, and residents will be asked to reduce their usage by 20 percent, Snow said.
"You've got to think about water as a precious resource," he said. "It may seem a stretch to conserve 20 percent of your water, but that's nothing in comparison to the consequences of the drought and job loss in agriculture."
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