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Parched: California's drought woes worsen

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

A pipe emerges from dried and cracked earth that used to be the bottom of the Almaden Reservoir Tuesday in San Jose, Calif.

Nearly 9 percent of California is experiencing "exceptional drought," officials reported Thursday, the first time since the measure has been kept that conditions have reached the highest level of alarm.

The 2013 calendar year was the driest in 119 years of record-keeping. Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency this month, saying it was “perhaps the worst drought California has ever seen.”

During what is normally the wettest month in California, there's little to no rain. The water shortage is particularly worrisome to farmers who are losing their crops to the arid land.

Thursday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Drought Monitor ratcheted up the concern, designating parts of nine counties throughout the state's Central Valley as "D4: Exceptional." More than 94 percent of the state is at least in some level of drought.

The new figures come just a day after water officials warned that 17 communities in the state are set to run dry in as little as a hundred days.

The withering drought has left the Golden State with dried-up wells, fallowing lands and little to no grass for cattle to graze on. 

January and February are often among the wettest months in California, but this month has been parched. The Bay Area has seen less than 10 percent of the rainfall it ordinarily sees by this point in the season, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Wednesday. It would have to rain every day through May to bring conditions back to normal, the paper quoted forecasters as saying.

Mountain snow, which normally melts to feed the state's waterways and reservoirs, is at 20 percent of its normal level. A snowstorm hitting the Sierras this week may bring some relief but is not expected to move the needle significantly.

The $45 billion agriculture business is also at risk. The California Department of Public Health is working to relieve some of the problems from the drought by constructing more wells, identifying additional sources such as nearby water systems or hauled water, and implementing other methods of water conservations.  

Brown, in Los Angeles on Thursday to meet with more than a dozen water leaders from across Southern California to discuss the the problem, urge Californians to embrace water conservation. 

"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."