Amid California's most crippling drought of modern times, state officials on Friday announced they won't allocate water to agencies that serve 25 million people, including Southern California's primary water wholesaler.
The announcement marks the first time in the 54-year history of the State Water Project that such an action has been taken. State Department of Water Resources Director Mark Cowin said the action was being taken to conserve the little water than remains behind the dams in the state's vast system of reservoirs.
"Simply put, there's not enough water in the system right now for customers to expect any water this season from the project," Cowin said in a statement that was released as numerous state and federal officials announced a variety of actions related to California's drought.
Most of the 29 agencies serving the towns and farms that draw from the State Water Project have other, local sources of water. But the total cut-off of state water deliveries this spring and summer could have a national impact because it will affect farms in one of the nation's richest agricultural belts.
"These actions will protect us all in the long run," Cowin said during the news conference.
A spokesman for the Metropolitan Water District, Southern California's largest water wholesaler, said its customers, including the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, were already planning to get scant deliveries from the State Water Project this year. MWD says state's decision poses "operational challenges" but should not affect the amount of water delivered to nearly 20 million people because it has sufficient reserves on hand.
Still, MWD has asked Southern Californians to voluntarily reduce water use by 20 percent. It's also looking to double the amount of money it spends on conservation efforts.
Friday's action comes after Gov. Jerry Brown made an official drought declaration, clearing the way for state and federal agencies to coordinate efforts to preserve water and send it to where it is needed most. The governor urged Californians to reduce their water use by 20 percent.
It also reflects the severity of the dry conditions in the nation's most populous state. Officials say 2013 was the state's driest calendar year since records started being kept, and this year is heading in the same direction.
A snow survey on Thursday in the Sierra Nevada, one of the state's key water sources, found the water content in the meager snowpack is just 12 percent of normal. Reservoirs are lower than they were at the same time in 1977, which is one of the two previous driest water years on record.
State officials have said that 17 rural communities are in danger of a severe water shortage within four months. Wells are running dry or reservoirs are nearly empty in some communities. Others have long-running problems that predate the drought.