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California needs big steps to save water as drought worsens: governor

A visitor walks near the receding waters at Folsom Lake, which is 17 percent of its capacity, in Folsom, California January 22, 2014. REUTER
A visitor walks near the receding waters at Folsom Lake, which is 17 percent of its capacity, in Folsom, California January 22, 2014. REUTER

By Dana Feldman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - California residents should dramatically cut back on water use, the governor said on Thursday, as the worst drought in nearly four decades threatened agriculture, triggered bans on fishing and led to mandatory rationing in some communities.

Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, urged residents to avoid flushing their toilets unnecessarily and recommended turning off the water while soaping up in the shower or shaving.

"Every day this drought goes on, we're going to tighten the screws on what people are doing," said Brown, 75, who was also governor during a severe drought in the 1970s. "Right now, it's voluntary."

The situation was unprecedented, said Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California at a meeting with Brown on Thursday.

He said he would ask officials to declare a regional water supply alert next week.

"I've never seen anything like this," said Kightlinger, who also met with other water district officials. "We were in much better shape in the 1977 drought."

That drought in 1977 "will be remembered as the driest year in the state's recorded history," a state report said in 1978.

Brown's remarks on Thursday came as his administration tried to ease the impact of the driest year on record for California, the nation's most populous state, forcing it to close some rivers and creeks to fishing.

On Tuesday, state health officials identified 17 communities that will need to import water supplies from other parts of the state, and promised assistance.

President Barack Obama spoke with Brown by telephone on Wednesday and pledged his support, the governor said at a meeting with water district officials in Los Angeles.

Lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle were expected to release their own, possibly competing, proposals on ways to deal with the drought, including a call by Republicans in the state Senate to sell bonds to build new reservoirs and other mechanisms for storing water in wet years.

Rain was predicted for several parts of the state Thursday, along with snow in the Sierra Nevada, but it was not clear that the precipitation would bring enough water to significantly ease the drought. By late morning, relatively little rain had fallen.

Earlier in the week, the state banned fishing in several creeks and rivers in the state, in an effort to protect migrating steelhead and salmon, whose efforts to spawn may already be impeded by receding water levels.

"We fully understand the impact these closures will have on California anglers and the businesses related to fishing in California, and we really feel for them," Charlton H. Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said in a statement late on Wednesday.

He called conditions for fish in the state's streams "increasingly grim."

"Under these extreme drought conditions, it is prudent to conserve and protect as many adult fish as possible to help ensure the future of fishing in California," Bonham said.

During the drought in the '70s, Brown had urged strong conservation measures, even asking residents to avoid flushing their toilets when only liquid waste was present.

Remedies he had implemented at the time included property tax reliefs for ranchers and farmers and the setting up of a water bank, so that communities in need of water could buy it from those who had excess.

(Additional reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento and Laila Kearney in San Francisco; Writing by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Bernadette Baum)

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