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THE CALIFORNIA DROUGHT : Flood Fears Rise but Rationing Remains

March 05, 1991|DAN MORAIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The sixth straight day of rain in Northern California prompted fears of flooding, but did not prompt officials to consider easing restrictions on water use in this fifth straight year of drought.

Meanwhile, a new storm in Southern California--a tropical system moving east from Hawaii--reached the region Monday afternoon, bringing light rain.

Forecasters said coastal areas in Southern California could receive as much as an inch of rain, while foothill and mountain areas could get as much as three inches before the storm system begins to move out of the region Wednesday. The snow level in the local mountains is expected to be 7,000 feet this morning, dropping to 5,500 feet later in the day.

In the Northern Sierra, eight inches of snow has fallen since the start of the storm seven days ago. But the snowpack, which will melt and flow into reservoirs this spring, remains at only 40% of normal for this time of year, state officials said.

"It has been very nice, very helpful. It probably transforms an extremely critical situation into one that is just critical," said Maurice Roos, chief hydrologist of the state Department of Water Resources.

Given the downpour, Roos said, some districts that had been especially dry and were imposing cuts of 50% on customers might consider relaxing their rationing plans. But the state has not received enough to rain to do away with rationing, he said.

"It is still going to be critical unless we get more rain," Roos said.

Roos said creeks were running full on Sunday and Monday, so the levels in the reservoirs probably will continue to rise today. But major reservoirs in the state remained less than half full. Shasta Reservoir--California's largest, with a capacity of 4.5 million acre-feet--had about 1.6 million acre-feet.

While the water levels remained far below normal, the week of storms brought some rivers in Northern California to near flood stage. In the Napa County town of St. Helena, emergency workers had sandbags ready in case the Napa River topped its banks. People were warned of possible flooding along the Russian River in Mendocino and Sonoma counties.

"We're ready to go," said Dan Nicholas, Sonoma County emergency services coordinator. "We have shelters identified. We have evacuation routes just in case."

A huge redwood, buffeted by high winds, fell onto and damaged the California Department of Forestry Building in Napa County.

U.S. Forest Service spokesman Gary Barnes said an extreme avalanche danger existed in the Tahoe Basin above 6,800 feet. The snow level was expected to drop to 5,500 feet by nightfall.

Robert Brown, a National Weather Service forecaster, said the storm that drenched Northern California over the weekend had begun winding down, although showers were expected to continue through today and Wednesday.

He said another storm may be "brewing up for Friday," but added that the drought would not be over until there are several more weeks of rain.

"It's encouraging that we got something. Maybe the window is open and we can get more," said Leo Bauer, manager of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and water system, which supplies 2 million customers in the Bay Area.

The snowpack in the 450-square-mile Hetch Hetchy watershed in Yosemite National Park remains at only 25% of normal. "It helped quite a bit, but there is a long, long way to go," Bauer said.

In Marin County, where residents have been limited to 50 gallons of water per person per day, wishful customers began calling the Marin Municipal Water District asking whether the rationing was being lifted.

"Right now, the answer is no," Marin spokeswoman Libby Pischel said. "We are glad to have the rain. We need it. But so far it is not enough to change our current rationing plan."

The Marin utility has 31,000 acre-feet of water in its seven reservoirs, up from the 25,000 acre-feet last month. Storage remains far below Marin's 80,000-acre-foot capacity. An acre-foot is enough to meet the needs of a family of five over 18 months.

The rain prompted the East Bay Municipal Utility District, which delivers water to 1.2 million customers in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, to re-evaluate whether it needed to seek temporary sources of water, said Gayle Montgomery, spokeswoman for the district. The East Bay district's board of directors had authorized $3.5 million for water purchases.

"It does not get us out of the conservation program. But it makes things look a little less hairy here," Montgomery said.

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