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April 29, 1990|William Kahrl | William Kahrl, associate editor of the Sacramento Bee, is the author of "Water & Power: The Conflict Over Los Angeles' Water Supply in the Owens Valley" (University of California Press).

SACRAMENTO — California this year enters its worst drought since the near-Saharan summer of 1977. But while the natural conditions are similar, some other things have changed--in part as a function of government policy, in part as a matter of attitude. As a result, the familiar chorus of municipal appeals for water conservation and rationing seems this time to have more to do with the rituals of California's old-time water religion than with any serious expectation of significant water savings.

The situation is certainly serious, although the effects of this drought, as in 1977, are unevenly distributed. The central coast, which even in wet years receives less water than many of the less heavily populated areas directly inland, will be especially hard hit. Santa Barbara has replaced Marin as the place where rich people live but can't flush. Activists throughout the state's water community love that kind of object lesson, often for directly contrary reasons.

Advocates of continued development point to the plight of Santa Barbara now and Marin then as cautionary examples of what can happen if you try to restrict urban growth by limiting water supplies. Environmentalists at the same time applaud these events as a way of reminding people generally of the limits of natural resources, while forcing the unhappy few who live in those areas to learn about the benefits of conservation at the most personal level.

Such problems also afford an opportunity for public water officials to demonstrate not only their own ingenuity but the remarkable flexibility of the modern water system as well. Just as Marin, for example, was "saved" in 1977 by laying a temporary pipeline to the East Bay, so can Santa Barbara secure relief in the short term, through plans now under way to tap into the Metropolitan Water District's abundant supplies on the south coast. Although getting the water that far north, through the jurisdictions of at least four independent water agencies, will be a complicated bureaucratic exercise, MWD officials express confidence they are up to the task.

Indeed, the fact that we are entering the fourth consecutive year of little water, without having suffered any severe economic consequences and without adding any major new storage reservoirs to the water system as a whole, is itself a testament to how skilled California's water officials have become at managing the resource efficiently. But if the evidence that we're getting more experienced at dealing with droughts has robbed the current water crisis of some of its urgency, it is also true that conditions are generally not nearly as severe today as they were in 1977. Overall water storage in California is currently at 74% of normal as compared with only 49% at this time of the year in 1977. And while the Colorado River, the most important out-of-state source of supply for half of California's population, has been running low, storage in its mammoth reservoir system is currently at 115% of the long-term average.

The focus of drought relief has shifted as well. In 1977, enormous efforts were expended at both ends of the state to get additional water for Central Valley agriculture. There were many reasons for that. Agribusiness then was facing the threat of drastic cuts--up to 75% in some areas. The conventional wisdom among campaign consultants of both parties held that the Central Valley controlled the balance of political power. And MWD was happy to help out because it needed agribusiness' help in pushing for construction of the Peripheral Canal. The result: Agriculture, in the middle of the worst drought in the state's history, enjoyed a banner year, racking up record sales and actually expanding the amount of acreage under irrigation.

This year the Central Valley is threatened with cuts of 25% to 50% in its supplies from both state and federal water systems. But with agribusiness' political influence waning and plans for the Peripheral Canal back on the shelf, those restrictions are more likely to stick this time around. And that's appropriate because agriculture, the state's largest water user, enjoys a lot more flexibility in the way it uses those supplies than most of the rest of the state.

If farmers have to make do with less water or lower-quality supplies, that might mean they have to pump more, or can decide to grow different crops, or in some instances may just alter their mix of federal subsidies. Other water-dependent industries, when faced with the same restrictions, might have no choice but to shut down.

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