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California Prepares For Third Dry Year

February 25, 1989

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) _ With every passing day of blue skies, water experts are growing more and more pessimistic that the state can avoid an unprecedented third year of drought that would lead to strict water rationing.

″After the dry January, a lot of my optimism faded,″ said Bob Vasconcellos, resources and planning manager for the San Francisco Water Department.

″I’m preparing for another year of this. January is normally the wettest month in most areas. If you don’t get the rain in January, your chances (of recovery) are pretty slim.″

As of Feb. 1, statewide precipitation for the winter was 35 percent below average, runoff was 55 percent below normal, and reservoirs were only about 40 percent full. With each additional dry week, the chances for recovery grow more slim.

Weekend skiers find the mountains covered with a powdery snow. Shrunken reservoirs reveal bare terraces of sand; rivers run in ever-smaller channels through bone-dry rock beds. Forests are spotted orange-red with dying trees, and anxious farmers watch their tractors kick up dust where there should be mud.

Unless California gets significant precipitation in the next few weeks, officials say, much of the state will suffer hardships rivaling those of the 1976-77 drought, when the state economy lost $2.4 billion. The only area that will probably escape the most stringent rationing is Southern California.

″The worst case would put us back where we were in ’77, the last big drought,″ said Gayle Montgomery, spokesman for the East Bay Municipal Utility District in Oakland.

″That means loss of landscaping, pretty severe cutbacks in all ways. ... It is no a pleasant thing to go through.″

The East Bay district, like the San Francisco Water Department across the bay, implemented 25 percent mandatory water rationing last year. With an eye on their shrinking Sierra Nevada reservoirs, both agencies are drafting further cutbacks.

They are not alone. Depending on the severity of a continued drought, a survey by the Department of Water Resources of 112 agencies found 60 to 76 plan mandatory rationing, up from 27 agencies in 1988.

″If this year is as critical as it was the last two years, there will be considerable water rationing throughout California,″ said Bill Helms of the Water Resources Department.

Growers in the fertile San Joaquin Valley, facing cutbacks in state water allocations of up to 40 percent and cuts in federal allocations of up to 50 percent, are preparing to idle fields and grow less thirsty and less profitable crops. The cutback in federal Central Valley Project water is only the second in the project’s 54-year history.

Jason Peltier, manager of the Central Valley Project Water Association, said a third drought year could cost agribusiness $1 billion in lost crops and up to $3 billion in losses in labor, processing, packaging, transportation and other agriculture-related industries.

Most cities won’t determine exact rationing plans until April, the official end of the rainy season. Water experts say the outlook could still improve, recalling Northern California floods in Februrary 1986. But pessimism is growing.

The San Francisco Water Department, which serves 2.1 million people in San Francisco and the Silicon Valley, is developing drought plans ranging from voluntary conservation to 35 percent mandatory cuts.

People in Southern California could fare much better, thanks to diversified water supplies from the Owens Valley, the State Water Project and a surplus of Colorado River water.

″The way things look right now, we should have enough water for the coming year,″ said Tim Skrove, spokesman for the Metropolitan Water District, which wholesales 2 million acre-feet to 14.5 million people in Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

″We’re still a little bit dry, but not nearly as bad as Northern California,″ said Greg Starmack, spokesman for the San Diego County Water Authority. The agency may seek voluntary conservation, but primarily to reduce heavy demand on its delivery system during peak hours.

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