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Drought May Make Comeback

March 11, 1994|FREDERICK M. MUIR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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."

Orange County gets its water in part from the ground, and in part by purchasing imported Colorado River and State Water Project supplies.

"Both supplies are at risk during a drought," said Stan Sprague, general manager of the Municipal Water District of Orange County, which sells imported water in the region on behalf of the Metropolitan Water District. "There's not a lot of water percolating into the underground, and that basin is like a savings account."

There is enough imported water available through the Metropolitan Water District to replenish Orange County's ground-water supplies through June, Sprague said, but he added that that assessment could change if the area gets no more rain.

"There's nothing in the Prado Dam. It's still empty," added James A. Van Haun, executive assistant to the manager of the Orange County Water District, which manages all Orange county ground water.

"In the long term it's alarming. It's always alarming because you never know if you're going to enter into another seven-year drought or 10-year drought or what is going on."

The Prado Dam Basin provides about 75% of the water for 2 million Orange County residents, percolating into the ground and then being pumped back out to consumers by various cities, and the water level is about as low as it was during the six-year drought, Van Haun said.

But, he added, the district plans to allow just as much water to be pumped out of the ground this year as last year, because it is purchasing water from the Metropolitan Water District to replenish the supplies.

About 22 Orange County cities rely mostly on ground water, and Fullerton is one of them.

"We were hoping we'd have another year like last year. But here it's March already, and it's looking like we're certainly not going to do it," said Larry Sears, water system engineer for the city of Fullerton.

Fullerton pumps 75% of its water from the ground, paying the Orange County Water District for those rights. The city purchases the other 25% from the Metropolitan Water District.

The district's board of directors will consider raising the rates it charges cities for pumping ground water when it meets Wednesday, Van Haun said.

The increase being contemplated by the board could translate into a 4% to 5% rate hike, Sears said.

The Metropolitan Water District decided last week to raise its rates effective July 1, and Fullerton consumers will feel the sting of that hike too, Sears added.

South County cities that rely wholly on imported water may also see rate increases because of that hike.

Last week the Los Angeles 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 dangerous condition of 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, although 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.

"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 the 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.

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