California Enters Into "Drought Preparedness" Mode : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

State Enters Into "Drought Preparedness" Mode

(GRANITE BAY, Calif.) -- Bony tree branches poke out of Folsom Lake now, skeletons from the forest that drowned when Folsom Dam was built east of Sacramento a half-century ago.

Hundreds of yards of dry lake bottom lie beyond the concrete boat ramps and asphalt parking lots, miring Annette Poole and Jessie Baker of Antelope axle-deep in sand recently as they dragged Poole's 18-foot outboard from the water.

"It's not as big a lake as it used to be," said Scott Deitzel of Citrus Heights as he pulled his 24-foot inboard up a makeshift ramp. "There's a lot of new islands now."

State and local water officials aren't panicking. Not yet.

But they're launching a new drought-preparedness Web site this month and a series of workshops this fall just in case this winter is as dry as last.

Another dry winter could presage a drought that could have far-reaching consequences for the state's rapid development and the lush irrigated farmland that sends fruits and vegetables across the nation.

"We've had six good years, six wet-to-average years in a row, so we haven't had to worry in a while," said Jeanine Jones, drought preparedness manager for the Department of Water Resources.

Things have changed for the worse since California's last drought, which ran six years from 1987 to 1992 and forced half the state's counties to declare drought emergencies.

The state has added more than 6 million people, and it's negotiating with other states to cut its overuse of Colorado River water. And environmental concerns have moved to the forefront to protect San Francisco Bay, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, and five fish species that have been declared endangered since the last dry spell.

"I guess it's too many people, not enough water and electricity," said Mike Arcuri of Roseville, pointing across drying Folsom Lake. "I grew up water skiing out there, and it was never like this."

Though statewide precipitation wasn't much below average last winter, an early snowmelt and unusually hot spring drew reservoir levels down early, said Pierre Stevens, the state's lead water supply forecaster.

Some relatively small coastal reservoirs actually are above average, Stevens said, but the large inland storage lakes are substantially below average.

"The reservoir levels were dropping in early summer when they normally would have been rising," he said. "Coming off a string of wet years before that, that's what people are remembering. So it's not that unusual. The big concern is what happens if it's another dry year?"

The state is planning five workshops in October and November for large water agencies that could be hit hard by a drought, and six seminars during the same period for rural homeowners who could see their private wells dry up during a prolonged dry spell.

Rural residents who depend on well water, dryland ranchers and isolated North Coast and Sierra foothill communities are the first likely to be hit, according to a DWR report last year titled: "Preparing for California's Next Drought."

Residents generally respond by hauling water and drilling new wells, further draining the water table. During the last drought's peak, 25,000 new wells were drilled each year, up from fewer than 15,000 in non-drought years.

The worst economic damage would likely affect the western San Joaquin Valley, where dry conditions are exacerbated by federal water restrictions, the report predicted.

Already this year, many San Joaquin fields have been left unplanted. Yet the water-restricted areas of the valley are where much of the growth has occurred in orchards and vineyards that need water in good and bad years.

The DWR already is considering whether it would operate a water purchasing program -- buying water from those who have it and distributing it to those who need it -- as it did during the last drought. Yet, nearly a third of California's counties have since restricted water exports in an effort to save the increasingly scarce resource for their own needs.

Falling lake levels and farmers' confrontation with federal authorities over water in the Klamath Basin have rekindled the debate over California's water supply, as some warn a water shortage could soon dwarf this year's energy crisis.

Sen. Maurice Johannessen, R-Redding, called the Klamath conflict along the California-Oregon border "the canary in the mine" that keeled over to warn of what he fears will be "a major water crisis."

The state has constructed no major reservoirs in more than 30 years, and a report last week by a Senate select committee chaired by Johannessen warned that the state isn't building new storage fast enough.

It is far more politically and environmentally feasible to enlarge existing reservoirs than to build new ones, said Robert Stackhouse, manager of the Central Valley Project Water Association, serving 3 million acres and several communities.

Plans are underway to raise dams at Lake Shasta near Redding in Northern California, Millerton Lake on the San Joaquin River near Fresno, the Los Vaqueros Reservoir near Livermore, and to build a new Sites Reservoir near Williams. But those projects are five to seven years from construction.

In addition, there are efforts to bank water underground, which brings less environmental damage but takes more energy to store and recover.

"We wish we had more reservoirs, given the environmental needs and growing water needs throughout the state," said California Farm Bureau spokesman David Kranz. "Even full reservoir levels don't necessarily equate to full water supplies for farmers as they used to."

-- Martin Thompson (, September 04, 2001

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