The Heat Is Online

Dry Winter Stirs Fears of California Drought

Under sunny skies, California hopes for rain

Reuters News Service, Jan. 6, 2000

SAN FRANCISCO - Ahh, Sunny California! One third of the way through the winter rainy season, the skies are clear, the sun is bright, and there's hardly enough snow in the Sierra mountains to fill a shovel.

After the pounding that California took over the past two years as El Nino-generated storms caused floods, mudslides and power outages up and down the state, the balmy beach weather might seem a blessing.

But for state water managers and nervous farmers, cloudless skies hint at trouble to come. While nobody is ready to mention "the D word," California's history of devastating drought is high on the list of worries for the New Year.

"It's one of the driest early winters we've had," said Jeff Cohen of the state's Department of Water Resources. "We're cognizant of the serious nature of the situation."

This week, surveyors testing snow depths around the Sierra confirmed what many suspected: The snowpack, which supplies more than one-third of the 36 million acre-feet of water consumed in California each year, was only about 24 percent of normal - with snow cover measured in inches, rather than feet.

"If this year continues the way it has we are certainly looking at a crisis in terms of (water) management," Dave Hart, the survey's director, said. "There is a possibility that with some major storms that we can approach average. It has happened before but it hasn't happened very often."

Along with raising farmers' fears, the snow survey is closely watched by the power industry as an indication of how much water might be available to generate electricity at hydroelectric dams later in the year.

The dry data from the Sierra mirrors precipitation patterns across the state. As of Tuesday, San Francisco had received only 4.31 inches of rain, less than half normal rainfall for the period. Los Angeles had received 1.87 inches, compared with a normal level of 5.24 inches for this point in the season.

Officials are quick to say the low levels do not in themselves constitute a crisis. California's reservoirs, still swollen by last year's El Nino rainfall, are brimming at about 115 percent of normal and officials at major urban water systems say reserves are plentiful.

But the state's farmers and ranchers are already feeling the pinch. In several districts in the central San Joaquin Valley, irrigation systems have already been turned on to water thirsty crops and keep the soil moist, according to officials at the California Farm Bureau.

"It doesn't look good. Conditions are very dry, and every day it gets worse," said spokesman Bob Krauter, adding that some farmers, notably winter wheat growers, need to see some appreciable rainfall by the middle of the month.

"Farmers have some hard choices to make because the price of wheat is so low that irrigation does not pay," Krauter said. "The wheat is is basically not growing ... the next two or three weeks could be critical."

And officials at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which supplies water to much of the San Joaquin valley, said reduced flows into dams and reservoirs could well cause more widespread shortages in coming weeks.

Both officials and farmers hold out the hope that California may still emerge from this winter with relatively normal rainfall levels, But there is a growing awareness in the state that water needs needed to be re-examined.

California has not added much new reservoir storage since the mid-1970s, but its population has expanded by almost one-third to reach 33 million. Another seven million are expected to arrive over the next 20 years, increasing pressure on water systems.

Cohen of the Department of Water Resources said the lack of major new reservoir storage was offset in part by improvements in ground water storage systems, water reclamation programmes, and conservation programmes.

But a protracted dry period - or even an official "drought" - could cut as deep into California's prosperity as the last dry stretch from 1987 to 1992, which emptied swimming pools and cost industry billions of dollars in extra charges for supplies and power.

"Preparations and improvements in the last eight or nine years have brought us to a point where we can hold our own in these dry periods," Cohen said. "But it is never as easy as it was the last time."