In a crushing reminder of the state's parched plight, federal officials announced Friday that the Central Valley Project -- California's largest water delivery system -- will provide no water this year to Central Valley farmers and only 50 percent of the contracted amount to urban areas such as Santa Clara and Contra Costa counties.
Farmers had been bracing for the bad news because California received less rain in 2013 than any year since it became a state in 1850. Despite some storms this month, the state is still grappling with low reservoirs and a Sierra Nevada snowpack that's 25 percent of normal.
Friday's announcement will particularly affect San Joaquin Valley farmers who are last in line to get federal water. Many will have to either heavily pump already overburdened wells, or let fields go unplanted this summer.
"California produces almost half of the nation's fresh fruits and vegetables. And without adequate water in California, food supplies from other states or other countries may be the only option to fill the gap," said Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition.
Wade predicted that farmers will leave 500,000 acres of land unplanted this year. Statewide, there are 8.1 million acres that farmers irrigate, and in many places they will produce crops this year with groundwater and local supplies.
Regions that rely heavily on federal water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, such as Fresno, Merced and Kings counties, will be hit the hardest.
Friday's announcement followed a similar one last month in which state officials announced that there would be zero deliveries from the State Water Project to cities and farms.
In a rare piece of good news, however, the National Weather Service is now saying a significant storm system will reach California Wednesday through Saturday. Rainfall could range from 2 to 5 inches across the state.
For many communities, which have received barely a third of their normal rainfall since July, three or four more storms of similar size are needed to bring rainfall totals to normal levels.
"We're not through the winter yet," said Pete Lucero, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that made Friday's announcement. "Miracle Marches have happened before, and we're are all hoping for one this year."
If the state receives significant rain and snow, the federal water delivery totals will be increased in the coming months, Lucero said. That happened in 2009, when federal water allocations were set at zero for most farmers in the San Joaquin Valley after a third dry year in a row, then bumped up to 10 percent of normal by April. Rains the following year increased that to 45 percent in 2010 and 80 percent in 2011.
The Central Valley Project -- which was built starting in the 1930s and moves water from Lake Shasta to Bakersfield through dams, canals and pumps -- provides 90 percent of its water to farms. In dry years, cities receive priority over farms.
"We are trying to ensure that public health and safety needs are met," Lucero said. "This is not a field that can go fallow. This is your children and my children being able to have enough drinking water."
Water districts in the Bay Area that buy federal water said they expected Friday's news and will cope.
The Santa Clara Valley Water District, which has asked 1.8 million people to cut water use 10 percent, will consider expanding that to 20 percent on Tuesday, spokesman Marty Grimes said.
But the district has a year's supply in the ground because it saved it during wet years, as well as some water in its 10 local reservoirs. So a reduction in its federal water won't cause an emergency, Grimes said.
Similarly, the Contra Costa Water District will get by, said spokeswoman Jennifer Allen. The district has a contract for 170,000 acre-feet of federal water. It will receive 85,000 under Friday's announcement. But the district's total demand is between 100,000 and 120,000 a year. So with conservation, and supplies in the district's Los Vaqueros Reservoir, completed in 1998, demand will be met.
"We have enough water to take care of all indoor use and business needs, but customers will need to focus on conservation in outdoor water use," she said.
Meanwhile, new details about the $687.4 million drought aid package -- unveiled earlier this week by Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic legislative leaders -- indicate that more than a third of the money will be distributed over the next few months.
Once Brown signs the legislation into law, the Department of Water Resources will immediately begin reviewing applications for $200 million to fund projects that improve regional drought preparedness or boost drinking water quality.
Towns at risk of running out of water will be eligible for $15 million for emergency drinking water supplies, and Californians struggling to pay their rent, mortgages or grocery bills will have access to more than $50 million in housing, food assistance and job training aid right away. But funding for other water conservation projects may not trickle out of the state's coffers until this summer.
Staff writer Jessica Calefati contributed to this report. Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulrogerssjmn.