The crisis is unfolding in ways expected and unexpected. Near Sacramento, the low level of streams has brought out prospectors, sifting for flecks of gold in slow-running waters. To the west, the heavy water demand of growers of medical marijuana — six gallons per plant per day during a 150-day period — is drawing down streams where salmon and other endangered fish species spawn.
"Every pickup truck has a water tank in the back," said Scott Bauer, a coho salmon recovery coordinator with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. "There is a potential to lose whole runs of fish."
Without rain to scrub the air, pollution in the Los Angeles basin, which has declined over the past decade, has returned to dangerous levels, as evident from the brown-tinged air. Homeowners have been instructed to stop burning wood in their fireplaces.
In the San Joaquin Valley, federal limits for particulate matter were breached for most of December and January. Schools used flags to signal when children should play indoors.
"One of the concerns is that as concentrations get higher, it affects not only the people who are most susceptible, but healthy people as well," said Karen Magliano, assistant chief of the air quality planning division of the state's Air Resources Board.
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The impact has been particularly severe on farmers and ranchers. "I have friends with the ground torn out, all ready to go," said Darrell Pursel, who farms just south of Yerington, Nev. "But what are you going to plant? At this moment, it looks like we're not going to have any water. Unless we get a lot of rain, I know I won't be planting anything."
The University of California Cooperative Extension held a drought survival session last week in Browns Valley, about 60 miles north of Sacramento, drawing hundreds of ranchers in person and online. "We have people coming from six or seven hours away," said Jeffrey James, who ran the session.
Dan Macon, 46, a rancher in Auburn, Calif., said the situation was "as bad as I have ever experienced. Most of our range lands are essentially out of feed."
With each parched sunrise, a sense of alarm is rising amid signs that this is a drought that comes along only every few centuries. Sacramento had gone 52 days without water, and Albuquerque had gone 42 days without rain or snow as of Saturday.
The snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, which supplies much of California with water during the dry season, was at just 12 percent of normal last week, reflecting the lack of rain or snow in December and January.
"When we don't have rainfall in our biggest two months, you really are starting off bad," said Dar Mims, a meteorologist with the Air Resources Board.
Even as officials move into action, people who have lived through droughts before — albeit none as severe as this — said they were doing triage in their gardens (water the oak tree, not the lawn) and taking classic "stop-start-stop-start" shower.
Jacob Battersby, a producer in Oakland, said he began cutting back even before the voluntary restrictions were announced.
"My wife and I both enjoy gardening," he wrote in an email. " 'Sorry, plants. You will be getting none to drink this winter.' "