RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne. Governor Jerry Brown has formally declared a drought emergency in California, saying the state is facing possibly the worst drought it has ever seen since record keeping began more than a hundred years ago.
This month, California has seen little or no rainfall - a pattern that's following much of last year's dry spell. Water reservoirs have plunged, in some cases, to half of their usual capacity. Mountains and forests continue to get dryer and more susceptible to wildfires. Farmers and ranchers face tough production choices as they deal with three years of water shortages. To better understand the impact of these unusually dry conditions we reached Michael Hanemann. He's a professor of agricultural and resource economics at UC Berkeley. Good Morning.
MICHAEL HANEMANN: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: So all of what I've just said is pretty bad. And I happen to live in California so I also happen to know that it is very, very dry there. What does a formal declaration of a drought emergency actually do? What will it get for the state?
HANEMANN: First of all, it gives sanction to water supply agencies to invoke special rules that they've developed banning lawn watering, washing cars. Secondly, it orders the Water Rights Agency in California to move some water from agriculture to urban uses and also to ecosystem protect. But most of the water in California, maybe 75, 80 percent of the water, is used in agriculture.
MONTAGNE: When you speak about transferring water from agricultural uses to urban uses, California is the nation's salad bowl. So the food a lot of people in the country buy and eat comes from California. I mean, what are these farmers going to do if they don't get as much water as they say they need?
HANEMANN: A drought will reduce the supply of foods produced in California. Prices will rise, but to some extent, the U.S. will import more from other sources. What farmers have done and will do on this occasion is shift water from annual crops like lettuce or tomatoes to tree crops - for example, almonds or pistachios - because it takes six or seven years to reestablish the trees.
Agriculture historically can bear cutbacks in surface water supply more easily than cities.
MONTAGNE: Well, just to that, finally, the urban water users. And that's more or less most of us. Back in '70s - and I'm from California; I remember that drought very well - we used to put buckets in the bathtub when we took showers. And we used that water to water the plants in the yard. Californian's are pretty good-or were pretty good about conserving water when they were asked. What are they going to have to do this time?
HANEMANN: It's going to be like that period you were describing. I remember it. It was my first winter in California, '76 and '77, and it looks as though it's going to be more severe this year than, for example, in '91 and '92 which was the last major drought. So it's going to be big restrictions for most of us using water in the cities.
MONTAGNE: Well, just a final simple last question, because I think there's a simple answer to this. Any relief in sight?
HANEMANN: You don't know. The drought could break tomorrow or a month from now or three months from now. It could happen any time, if we're lucky.
MONTAGNE: Well, I gather there's a lot of praying for rain out there. So thank you very much for joining us.
HANEMANN: You're very welcome.
MONTAGNE: Michael Hanemann is director of the California Climate Change Center at UC Berkeley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.