As California Drought Gets Worse, Governor Declares Emergency And A Submerged Ghost Towns Rises From A Lake

By Ben Wolford on January 20, 2014 5:48 PM EST

Lake Tahoe
This picture of Lake Tahoe, taken by a passenger on an Alaska Airlines flight, shows how little snow has accumulated in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. That snow melt is usually California's water reserve each spring. (Photo: Flickr/Joe Wolf, CC BY-ND 2.0)

The drought in California has gone on so long that government officials, farmers, and even clergy are now more worried than ever. Weird things are happening: in the Folsom Lake Reservoir, near Sacramento, the submerged remains of a frontier town have emerged from the depths as the water dried up. Whole fields of crops are doomed, and forest fires are blazing like it was July.

"It's really is unprecedented. In my career, I've not seen this level," Ken Pimlott, director of the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told the Los Angeles Times. "It's the first [weeks] of January and we're seeing conditions that would normally be occurring in mid-summer. That's what we're up against." The cause? A massive high-pressure zone reaching from Oregon down the coast to Mexico. According to The New York Times, the high-pressure area "acts like a mountain range, blocking storm systems from striking land." Instead, precipitation is moving north to Canada and aggravating the polar vortex.

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On Friday, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a statewide emergency, which allows the state to truck in water faster, bring down federal money, and ignore some environmental regulations. "We can't make it rain," he said, "but we can be much better prepared for the terrible consequences that California's drought now threatens, including dramatically less water for our farms and communities." Normally, Californians rely on snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains to melt in the spring. But this year, snowpack is 20 percent of normal levels, the governor's office said. Levels for river flow, groundwater, and reservoirs are all significantly lower than normal. "I'm calling all Californians to conserve water in every way possible," Brown said.

The Catholic Bishops, however, are doing their part to try to help make it rain. Jaime Soto, president of the California Conference of Catholic Bishops, suggested a prayer. "Open the heavens and let His mercy rain down upon our fields and mountains." Meanwhile, The Folsom Telegraph posted creepy pictures of two 19th century ghost towns left over from the Gold Rush. Called Red Bank and Salmon Falls, they'd been underneath the Folsom Lake Reservoir until around December, when the reservoir dried to 21-percent capacity. Now, according to The Times, the reservoir is at 17-percent capacity. You can see pieces of glass and rusty tools on the cracked lake bed.

Fires are one of the gravest concerns. Normally January is a slow month for the state's forest firefighters, the LA Times reports. The average is 25 fires; as of Jan. 18 there have been 150 with no end in sight. "It's just explosive," said one climatologist, who predicted that the spring won't be much better. He said February, March, and April — typically the wettest months of the year — show no signs of relief.

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