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Idyllwild Area Parched by Worst Drought in 70 Years

Resources: Mandatory water restrictions are imposed as ground-water table drops and reservoir lake is down 90%, to the depth of a wading pond.

April 28, 2002|DEBORAH SULLIVAN BRENNAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

IDYLLWILD — Fog swirling around lofty pines gives an unmistakable impression of lushness here. But beneath the surface lies a different picture--of the mountains' water evaporating amid what officials call the worst local drought in 70 years.

The ground-water table is dropping, a reservoir lake has dried to the depth of a wading pond and local water agencies have imposed mandatory water restrictions in this mountain town of 2,000.

"I have never seen or experienced four years of so little rainfall and snowpack in a row," said Jerry Holldber, general manager of the Pine Cove County Water District, one of three small districts that serve the community.

This year has been the driest on record here since 1929, said Jim Ludy, controller of the Idyllwild Water District. It also has been the only period to produce four consecutive years of drought.

"Any little bit of moisture, any, we just pray for it," Barbara McCay, a 50-year resident, said as she eyed the fog that descended on the forest one day recently. "We've had a dry winter, and this summer is going to be hell."

Officials say the coming months may indeed prove trying, with tightened water limits and a heightened fire risk.

Each of the area's three water districts has escalated from voluntary to mandatory water restrictions. These include requiring residents to immediately repair leaking faucets and plumbing, water plants only in the early morning or evening hours, and cease draining and refilling swimming pools.

Signs around town read: "Stage II water restrictions in effect. Please conserve." The water district offices offer conservation brochures, and restaurants decline to offer water automatically, instead posting cards that advise customers to "just ask."

If residents waste water, officials have the authority to double or triple their water bills, restrict their water flow or shut off their water entirely, said Thomas Lovejoy, general manager of the Idyllwild Water District.

Foster Lake, which serves as a reservoir for the Idyllwild Water District, has dropped from 20 feet to 2 feet. A district crew member recently watched a long-legged bird walk clear across it, Lovejoy said. Strawberry Creek, which feeds the water district, previously ran with trout, but is now padded with dried pine needles.

"Not only are the creeks dry and the lakes dry, but the water level in our wells is falling," Lovejoy said. "One year ago, the ground-water level in our main well field was 12 feet below the surface. It is now 45 feet below the surface."

While the state as a whole is doing fine, with rainfall at 85% of average, Southern California has seen just 30% of average rainfall this year, said California state climatologist Bill Mork.

Rainfall in Idyllwild was 8.72 inches as of March 31--about a third of the year-to-date average of 24 inches. But unlike lowland areas that sit above porous aquifers and tap the state's extensive water system, Idyllwild perches on granitic rock that captures rainwater only in cracks and crevices.

"So we don't have the water resources to draw on like the valley communities," said George Meyer, an Idyllwild resident and professor of geology at College of the Desert in Palm Desert. "It's a very, very, finite resource. We don't have a bank account to draw on; we don't have a big reservoir."

It's precisely the type of area that is most vulnerable to drought--small, isolated, rural water systems relying on ground-water tables stored in fractured rock, said Jeanine Jones, principal engineer for the state Department of Water Resources. It's also the type of area that is primed for wildfire, scientists say.

Parched trees are dying throughout the forest as drought saps their strength and leaves them vulnerable to attacks by pests and parasites.

The dense trees, dried brush and deadwood raise the risk of forest fires, officials warn. Although a dry year yields fewer grasses in which a fire can ignite, it also desiccates logs and trees, which can fuel an inferno once a fire starts.

Under natural conditions, small frequent fires thin the forest floor. But a century of fire suppression short-circuited that process, leaving a tinderbox behind, said Richard Minnich, a professor of earth sciences at UC Riverside.

"All of these mountain communities have very dense forests, and are in very big trouble.... The fuel is there," he said.

The drought hasn't hurt local businesses, merchants say--so far.

Joel White, owner of the Idyllwild Inn, saw about a 2% drop in weekend visitors because of the lighter snowfall, but said other tourists driving up the mountain to beat the desert heat made up much of the shortfall.

David Agranowitz, owner of the Bread Basket restaurant, said he's braced for higher water bills but hasn't seen rates rise yet.

State Assemblyman David Kelley (R-Idyllwild), who grows ruby red grapefruit in nearby Hemet, said farmers are facing higher water costs and lowered wells. But he added that he has little choice but to wait for rain.

The drought has at least called attention to water issues, residents say. The Mountain Resources Conservancy, a local environmental group, has protested a local water-bottling operation at springs off Idyllwild's Lily Creek, and called for a mountainwide water management plan.

"These springs represent, in this life zone, an oasis for very diverse life that is stressed by drought," said Chuck Stroud, a steering committee member of the Mountain Resources Conservancy.

"These are cradles of life, and they're very limited--so the commercial taking of water is extremely inappropriate, and even more profoundly so in face of this enduring drought."

Paul Black, owner of the bottling company, declined to comment. At the urging of the group, however, the three local water districts are forming an areawide water management plan, said Mel Goldfarb, president of the Idyllwild Water District board.

"We can't create water," he said. "But maybe we can figure out how we can get water more efficiently."

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