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California releasing more reservoir water for farms and agencies but bracing for more drought

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SACRAMENTO, California — Recent storms will allow California to provide more water to local agencies and farms even as drought conditions stretch into a fourth year, officials announced Thursday.

State officials said storms in early December boosted supplies in the state's vast reservoir system enough to give Southern California cities and farms 15 percent of their requested water. That will be the second-lowest distribution on record after the State Water Project filled only 5 percent of need last year.

"We've gone from really, really, really bad to really, really bad," said Mark Cowin, director of the Department of Water Resources. "We must prepare for the worst."

The state system provides water to 25 million people and 750,000 acres of farmland. Farmers have turned to groundwater wells, while governments have been tapping into water kept in reserves.

Worsening conditions spell trouble for their backup plans.

After the December rainfall, January has brought little precipitation in what's normally the wettest month of the season. A separate federal forecast released Thursday shows drought conditions continuing through April in much of California.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California met demands from its members, including Los Angeles and Orange County, by taking water out of storage. But its reserves are at half-capacity from 2012.

PHOTO: In this photo taken Monday Nov. 17, 2014, boat slips sit on the dry lake bed at Brown's Marina at Folsom Lake, near Folsom Calif. Storms in early December boosted water supplies enough to provide Southern California cities and farms 15 percent of their requested water, announced the Department of Water Resources, Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
In this photo taken Monday Nov. 17, 2014, boat slips sit on the dry lake bed at Brown's Marina at Folsom Lake, near Folsom Calif. Storms in early December boosted water supplies enough to provide Southern California cities and farms 15 percent of their requested water, announced the Department of Water Resources, Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

"If drought conditions persist in 2015, we may have to consider restricting access to the supplies in the coming months," said Bob Muir, a spokesman for the water contractor.

Last year ended as the hottest on record in California. It also was part of the driest three-year stretch ever measured. The drought has left Central Valley fields fallowed, exacerbated wildfires and led to water rationing in some communities.

To maintain supplies, state water officials are urging residents to continue taking shorter showers and letting their lawns go brown.

"The situation is still virtually as dire as it was a year ago," said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board. "Conservation continues to be the most efficient and common sense way to expand our supplies."

The water board, which last summer imposed mandatory restrictions on outdoor water use, will revisit and consider expanding its regulations next month.

California voters approved a $7.5 billion water plan in November, but little can be used to provide immediate drought relief this year.


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