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Governor declares Central Valley drought emergency

4:55 p.m.: SACRAMENTO -- In an effort to help drought-stricken farmers, Gov. Schwarzenegger today proclaimed a water emergency in nine Central Valley counties, including Merced, Maders, Fresno, Tulare and Kings.

Most notably for west Valley farmers, the governor called for pumping groundwater into the California Aqueduct. Pumping could begin within days.

Growers in the Westlands Water District hope to use the cement-lined canal to move well water within the region to make up for an unexpected cut in federal water supplies. But environmentalists are expected to challenge the move on the grounds that it could introduce dangerous contaminates into the canal, which is used to supply urban users in Southern Califiornia.

The governor also called for operational changes at state-water facilities to move more water into the San Joaquin Valley. Public water agencies will also get state help to improve wells or drill new ones.

12:19 p.m.: Gov. Schwarzenegger is planning to call a water state of emergency today for several Valley counties.

The declaration will include an order that state water officials allow pumping of groundwater into the California Aqueduct, the 444-mile canal that sends water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to Valley farmers and Southern California cities.

Growers in the west Valley are pitching the plan as a way to boost dwindling water supplies by moving water to farms that need it. Environmentalists have vowed to fight the proposal, saying it could harm water quality for urban users in Southern California. Activists also say growers would need federal permits. State water officials disagree.

The declaration will also ease rules to allow for more water transfers, administration officials said. The order will cover Fresno, Tulare, Madera and Merced counties and possibly other counties, officials said.

The Fresno County Board of Supervisors passed its own emergency declaration last week and urged the governor to follow suit.

A dry spring and court-ordered pumping restriction in the delta have forced some growers to abandon crops and lay off workers.