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Dry Days Bring Unease : With Winter Rainfall Well Below Average, Drought Fears Emerge


The Prado Dam Basin is practically bone dry. The Santa Ana River is trickling at just half its normal flow. And coastal and mountain regions everywhere are experiencing rain and snowfall significantly below normal precipitation for January.

All of which has raised the specter among water experts in Orange County and throughout the state of a new drought that could be ushered in by an extremely dry 1994.

"We are concerned," said Jay Malinowski, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Water District, which imports water from Northern California and the Colorado River to supply about half the needs of Southern Californians. Should current trends continue, he said, water shortages can be expected this summer.

"If this weather holds up through the end of February," he said, "we will be very alarmed."

Maurice Roos, chief hydrologist for the California Department of Water Resources, is also keeping an eye on the weather. "I would characterize the situation by saying that we're slipping into what looks like a dry year," he said.

Their concern is prompted by the numbers, which show that statewide rainfall to date is only about 60% of what falls by this time in an average year, measured from July 1 through June 30. In addition, experts say, the amount of snow in the mountains--important because it melts in the spring to become part of the water supply--is only about 40% of average.

These figures are especially dramatic when compared to last year, when rainfall was 155% of average and snowfall about 170%. That was the year that marked the end of a major, six-year drought during which Californians saw such drastic conservation measures as water rationing, heavy fines for overuse and laws against watering lawns.

In Orange County the current dry season is evidenced in some very visible ways. Prado Dam Basin, which supplies about 75% of the county's water, is almost dry at a time when it should be looking like a lake. The flow of water in the Santa Ana River, which feeds into the area from neighboring Riverside County, is about 200 cubic feet per second--roughly half the normal flow.

"Our three big water months are December, January and February," said James A. Van Haun, executive assistant to the manager of the Orange County Water District, which provides water for much of Orange County. "We're at the middle of January now and we haven't received any appreciable precipitation since the beginning of December."

And communities all over the county are experiencing dry spells that practically make the sagebrush crackle.

Despite that fact, county residents still jittery from the recent Laguna fire should not conclude that the dry weather necessarily translates into increased fire hazards, county firefighters say. While lack of rain tends to dry out existing underbrush, making it more flammable, it also tends to inhibit the growth of new vegetation, which could fuel a fire.

"It's really a mixed bag," said Emma Day, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Fire Department. "It all goes back to the nature of where we live; basically it's a desert."

To bolster her argument that fires--which are also affected by such things as wind conditions and temperature--do not necessarily thrive in dry weather, Day pointed to recent Orange County statistics. In 1990--a drought year--297 Orange County fires consumed about 15,500 acres, she said. The next year, one of the driest in memory, 316 fires consumed only about 220 acres. And in 1993, an extremely wet year, the Laguna fire alone--the most devastating in county history--destroyed 16,682 acres.

Still, water officials say, the dry weather and the demands it places on water supplies are not to be taken lightly, particularly with water storage levels not yet fully recovered from the ravages of the last drought.

In the Metropolitan Water District, Malinowski said, the projected supply of water for Southern California--assuming average rainfall--almost exactly equals the projected demand. So any shortage of rainfall, he said, will be water snatched from the tap.

"It's as if our checkbook zeros out at the end of each month," he said. "You wouldn't want to run a household that way and it's no way to manage water."

Water officials say they still have a long way to go before declaring 1994 a drought year, however. Generally speaking, hydrologist Roos said, conditions are considered droughtlike only when lack of precipitation makes a given year one of the driest 10% on record. In such cases--usually well after the rainy season has ended--the head of the California Department of Water Resources makes a recommendation to the governor, who then acts upon it.

Two weeks ago, according to Roos, the department issued a report positing a 25% to 30% chance that such a recommendation would be made this year. Another report is due out early next month, he said.

"We're definitely way behind average," Roos said, "but we're not yet down to critical."

Drier Season So Far

Rainfall this season is far below last year's total and also less than the yearly average. Totals, in inches, in four Orange County locations between Oct. 1 and Jan. 13:

Last storm 10/1/93 to 10/1/92 to Average, 10/1 (12/26) 1/15/94 1/13/93 and 1/13 Santa Ana 0.02 1.51 4.70 5.04 Santiago Peak 0.04 5.29 11.78 11.83 Villa Park dam 0.00 2.15 4.77 5.76 Costa Mesa 0.02 1.54 3.89 4.70


Annual Rainfall

During just two of the last six years, rainfall has been higher than the county's annual average of 12.98 inches. Annual rainfall in inches, measured July 1-June 30 in Anaheim: (average 12.98) 1987-88: 9.98 1988-89: 8.00 1989-90: 8.34 1990-91: 11.48 1991-92: 16.97 1992-93: 27.76

Source: Orange County Environmental Management Agency

Researched by DAVID HALDANE / Los Angeles Times

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