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Californians Facing Drought From After Low Precipitation

By Frederick M. Muir
Los Angeles Times

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

So far this winter, rainfall and snowfall 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 percent 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," according to Steve Hall, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies.

Still, the state is not in the dangerous condition it was in 1991 and 1992 at the tail 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.

So far this winter, precipitation in the State Water Project's giant water shed on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada is at about 70 percent of normal. In the watershed on the Eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, where the City of Los Angeles gets most of its water, the mountain snowpack is 59 percent of normal. And in the Los Angeles basin precipitation is just 53 percent 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 California's top 10 list of concerns. But the window of opportunity for such relief this year is rapidly closing.

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

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, which serves a six-county region from San Diego to Ventura. 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 human use.

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.