California Rains Bring Mixed Blessing

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THE winter storms that have been dumping liberal doses of rain and snow across California have also splashed disaster across the news pages of dozens of communities - from mudslides and uprooted trees to derailed trains and drowned motorists. But the storms also have brought welcome drought relief, top flood and water officials say.

"We are doing very well in coping with spasmodic bursts of water," says William Helms, chief of the state's Flood Operation Center in Sacramento. "Damage is being kept to a minimum while the state is getting water it sorely needs."

According to National Weather Service meteorologist Stephen Ahn, the series of tropical storms that have been pelting California since Jan. 4 have made January the fifth wettest month on record. The state has reached 120 percent of its 50-year average rainfall (measured between Oct. 1 and Sept. 31, 1993). And reservoirs that provide two-thirds of the state's water (Shasta, Folsom, Oroville, Bullard's Bar, and San Luis) have collected 127 percent of their average.

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"The reason we are not having more flooding problems is because the capacities of state reservoirs had been drawn so low," adds Mr. Helms.

More problems have been apparent in southern California than in the north.

* Local emergencies have been declared in San Diego County where 46 buildings were flooded and in Riverside County where mudslides destroyed dozens of businesses and homes.

* At press time, Santa Barbara's Cachuma Reservoir was reported in danger of spilling over, threatening communities downstream.

* In Los Angeles County, water stress to a small private dam near Agua Dulce forced the evacuation of a trailer park.

Vern Knoop, acting district chief for the Los Angeles Department of Water Resources, says flooding in the south has been minimized, however, by thirsty vegetation and land parched by six years of drought. "The ground has been so scorched that much of the water has just been sucked up like a sponge," he says.

Jay Malinowski, assistant chief of operations for the Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District, said water stored in the Sierra snowpack is nearly 200 percent of normal. The area drains into reservoirs in central and northern California, and is just shy of the total for a normal season, which ends in April. But he and other officials are reticent to say the state's longest drought is over.

Meteorologists say, however, that so much precipitation early in the season bodes well. For six years, Pacific storms that have been headed toward California have been diverted by high pressure fronts. But the cooling effects of recent rains tend to break up such fronts.

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