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Welcome to Dry Times

November 30, 2002

After 150 years in which California stole, bought or appropriated water whenever more was needed, the state is in viewing distance of chronic water shortages. Warning signs are everywhere -- in the trickle of water flowing in the Colorado River this year, in the damage that massive pumping by water projects has done to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta fisheries and in global warming forecasts that are finally beginning to alarm the state's water leaders.

The days of thirsty cotton farming and irrigated pasture in California are numbered, even if the farmers gushing taxpayer-subsidized cheap water onto their land think otherwise.

Consider the Colorado. Southern California has enjoyed a bountiful supply of water because of huge surpluses in Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam generated by years of heavy snowfall in the upper Colorado River watershed. Drought set in three years ago with sobering results. Lake Mead has plummeted by nearly 8 million acre-feet, roughly the amount of water Southern California consumes in two years. The lake level has dropped 59 feet.

At a Nov. 22 conference in Anaheim, city and farm water district officials and state legislators declared the days of building more and bigger dams and reservoirs over. There's not enough water still to be collected to justify the huge cost. Science, technology and creative thinking will have to lead the way to new supplies.

For cities, desalination of ocean water finally seems to be economically feasible. The San Diego County Water Authority recently signed an agreement for construction of a $270-million desalination plant, to open by 2007.

State Sen. Jim Costa (D-Fresno), the retiring water guru in the Legislature, drew gasps from the water delegates at Anaheim when he said that more farm-to-city water transfers might reduce agriculture production by a million acres or more. Costa is right. When San Diego is willing to pay Imperial Valley farmers $278 an acre-foot for water they get for $15.50 (one acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, enough for two average families for a year), the shift is inevitable.

Farmers in the Imperial Valley are also hearing their own water district asking for "extraordinary measures" to conserve water -- after years of official denial that anyone was wasting a drop. The Metropolitan Water District, which wholesales water to all of Southern California, and the San Diego County Water Authority also are launching major conservation programs.

Global warming could significantly cut long-term supply on the rivers that provide the bulk of California's water because more moisture in the mountains would fall as rain rather than snow. The snowpack is the most important reservoir of all, holding the moisture until the spring melt and runoff. This could happen within 25 to 50 years, said officials of Scripps Institute of Oceanography, as California's population grows past 50 million.

Growth alone in the coming decade could increase water demand by 3 million acre-feet a year at current usage.

California's water has traditionally been doled out by a select circle of officials known as the "water buffaloes," urban and farm water district officials and their lawyers, who protected their own interests first. That worked as long as there was water to waste. In California, those days are gone for good.

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