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Water Shortages and Fires Loom After a Dry Winter

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Good morning.

The weather forecast today calls for sunshine across the state, with barely a cloud on the horizon for the next week or so.

Pour yourself a nice, cool glass of water — and then think about how you’re going to start conserving it.

The lack of rain and snow during what is usually California’s wet season has shrunk the state’s water supply. The Sierra Nevada snowpack, a crucial source of water as it melts over the spring and summer, is currently at 65 percent of normal. Major reservoirs are also low.

Two state agencies warned last week that the dry winter is very likely to lead to cuts in the supply of water to homes, businesses and farmers. The federal Bureau of Reclamation also told its agricultural water customers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to expect no water this year.

“There will be a bunch of annual crops that won’t get planted,” Ernest Conant, the bureau’s regional director, said. “I hate doing this, but unfortunately, we just can’t make it rain.”

In Marin County, reservoirs are barely half full and the water agency has already declared a drought and asked residents to voluntarily cut back on water use.

“The strategy of ‘let’s just hope for rain’ is not an option,” said Cynthia Koehler, president of the Marin Municipal Water District. If consumption does not fall enough through voluntary measures, mandatory cuts may be necessary.

Statewide, the drought is not yet as severe as the long dry spell that in 2014 led Jerry Brown, the governor at the time, to declare a state of emergency and cut water to the state’s utilities by 25 percent. During that period, the State Water Resources Control Board invoked rarely used powers to order some large water users to stop drawing from the state’s rivers and waterways.

Changes that California residents made during that crisis led to a lasting drop in urban water use, officials said. Farming, which accounts for 80 percent of water use, has also become more efficient.

But if next winter is also dry, California could be looking at another drought emergency, according to Karla Nemeth, director of the California Department of Water Resources, which just cut allocations to the 27 million Californians served by the State Water Project.

“We’re trying to get out in front of it and get people prepared,” she said. “Surprises aren’t great for the utility community.”

Climate change is likely to mean longer and deeper droughts, said Joaquin Esquivel, chair of the state water board. He suggested that communities need to work proactively to assess local water supplies and conserve before regulators need to take drastic action like curtailing water access.

That’s precisely what the Marin water utility is doing. “We’re not going to wait until we are in crisis until we address the problem,” Ms. Koehler said.

The dry conditions don’t just mean a lack of water for drinking, bathing and farming. California is looking at the possibility of another devastating fire season.

“The level of concern is through the roof,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at U.C.L.A. and the Nature Conservancy. After two years of drought, the soil moisture is depleted, drying out the vegetation and making it more prone to combustion.

“This is going to be a big problem throughout the West,” he said.

(This article is part of the California Today newsletter. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox.)


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Last week, we sent you an interview with the author Charles Fleming about his guides to stair walks around Los Angeles and the East Bay. With parks, hiking trails and even beaches closed last year, we figured that a lot of Californians had stumbled across the walks, as a way to help stay sane.

Based on the many emails and messages we got in response to the story, that was true.

But several readers told us that we were remiss for not mentioning Adah Bakalinsky’s “Stairway Walks in San Francisco,” which was first published in 1984 and is now in its ninth edition, written with Mary Burk. (We’re sorry — and Ms. Bakalinsky, if you’re reading this, we’d love to meet you!)

Also among those who reached out in response to the piece was Jeremy Lizt, 45, one half of the couple Mr. Fleming mentioned whose relationship “had been built around the stairs.”

In an email, Mr. Lizt explained that he had bought a copy of “Secret Stairs East Bay,” on a whim at the beginning of last year, shortly before he and his now-fiancée, Deborah Breisblatt, met.

“As the Bay Area went into lockdown, the book already felt like a divine gift,” Mr. Lizt wrote. The stair walks were a safe way to spend time together in the pandemic, and they quickly found themselves on their way to completing all 38 walks.

About a month ago, Mr. Lizt said he and Ms. Breisblatt, 37, returned to the first walk they did together. They turned off onto a dirt path that opened up to a wide view of San Francisco and the Bay.

Mr. Lizt told her that he had discovered one walk that they hadn’t done. Then, as Ms. Breisblatt reacted in disbelief, he took out a copy of the walk guide with pages added that read, “Walk #Us,” mimicking Mr. Fleming’s style. Mr. Lizt had cut a compartment into the book, which held an heirloom ring.

“This is the most challenging — and rewarding — walk in the collection,” the page read.

“Will you take this walk with me?” Mr. Lizt asked.

Ms. Breisblatt, of course, said yes.


California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: CAtoday@nytimes.com. Were you forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here and read every edition online here.

Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter.

Vindu Goel has lived in California for about half his life, including stints in San Diego, Silicon Valley, San Francisco, and now, Oakland. He is currently an emerging platforms editor on the Audience team.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.

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