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Remember the Drought? Well, It Might Be Back


Just when you thought it was safe to linger in the shower for a few extra minutes, state water officials say California is slipping into another drought.

So far this winter, rain and snow amounts in the critical mountain regions of Northern California--where most of the state's water originates--are well below normal and even lower than in some of the recent drought years.

"The water supply outlook for the coming runoff year is not encouraging," said Gerald Gewe, director of resources planning at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. "With only four weeks remaining in the snow season, time is quickly running out for any significant recovery."

The light precipitation is already having an impact. Last week the Department of Water and Power announced it would increase rates by 9% beginning in April, to pay for additional water that will have to be purchased from other agencies. And agricultural areas, particularly in the Central Valley, could be facing severe shortages, said Steve Hall, executive director of the Assn. of California Water Agencies.

Still, the state is not in the same dangerous condition as it was in 1991 and 1992, the end of the last drought, officials said. At this point, no major water agencies in Southern California are proposing restrictions on usage, though supplies will be short.

At this point, conditions in the Eastern Sierra qualify as "critically dry," under criteria established by the California Department of Water Resources. In the Western Sierra, conditions are on the borderline between dry and critically dry. The state suffered dry and critically dry conditions in all six years of the recent drought.

So far this winter, precipitation in the State Water Project's giant watershed on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada is at about 70% of normal. In the watershed on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, where the City of Los Angeles gets most of its water, snowpack is 59% of normal. And in the Los Angeles Basin, where some communities collect important ground water supplies, precipitation is just 53% of normal.

"It's not much different than when we were in the drought," said Maury Roos, chief hydrologist for the state. And there is little hope that things will change much in the next few weeks, he said.

The devastating six-year drought ended last year when a statewide deluge filled parched reservoirs and erased water use from our top 10 list of concerns. But the window of opportunity for such relief this year is rapidly closing.

Most of the state's water supply arrives in the rains and snows of December, January and February. March and November are the next best months for precipitation.

"There's some years when April makes a difference, but not many," said Roos. If the rain hasn't arrived by April 1, chances are that it won't, Roos added.

One bright spot is the Colorado River, where the water supply is expected to be at normal levels this year, according to figures provided by the Metropolitan Water District. The MWD, which imports and distributes about half the water consumed in Southern California, gets about half its supply from the river.

Reservoir storage statewide is close to normal levels for this point in the year because of the large amount of water left over from last year's unusually heavy rains. But the storage level will soon begin dropping below normal levels as the runoff from the winter's sparse snowpack fails to replenish the reservoirs as quickly as the water is drawn for use.

"We'll be living off the carry-over storage," Roos said.

This year's reservoir storage may not go as far as it would have in years past. Water agencies are now required to devote a greater share of the available water to environmental uses, such as releasing water into the Sacramento Delta to aid fisheries. That will cut down on the amount of reservoir storage that will be available for Southern California consumers, officials said.

"Am I worried? Sure," said Duane Georgeson, assistant general manger of the Metropolitan Water District, which serves a six-county region from San Diego to Ventura. "We've got enough storage for one dry year. But with two, you're in the soup."

The state's water agencies were criticized in the last drought for allegedly mismanaging reservoir storage. Some authorities said agencies released too much water from storage too early, leaving the state severely short of supplies when the drought persisted longer than anticipated.

Still, officials at the key Southern California water districts are not yet suggesting there will be cutbacks at the tap this year.

"That is, as long as people stick to their good habits," said the DWP's Gewe.

Gewe said that even though the drought officially ended last spring, consumers' conservation habits did not. Gewe said that water consumption is still down about 20% from pre-drought levels--about the same level of conservation noted during the drought.

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