Drought Leaves a Legacy in Golden State
Farmers will no longer get special treatment in allocation of California's water supplies
POLITICAL officials in northern and southern California are jumping for joy as they mark the end of the state's historic, six-year drought.Skip to next paragraph
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The series of winter storms that has pelted the state since mid-January has raised the water level at the state's 155 reservoirs to 80 percent of normal - up from 55 percent in October - and left mountain snowpacks at 175 percent of normal.
While the prolonged dry spell is over, it has left an indelible mark on this state, perhaps changing forever the way Californians think about and use water.
While environmentalists are cheered by this development, farmers glumly contemplate a future where they no longer get special treatment in water allocation.
But all sides in the water debate - environmentalists, farmers, city dwellers, and water officials from Eureka to San Diego - agree that the drought has performed one useful service by bringing home the need for California to improve its water infrastructure.
"It's pretty obvious the state needs more storage and conveyance facilities," says Maurice Roos, chief hydrologist for the state Department of Water Resources.
He notes that, despite an influx of 10 million to 12 million people into California during the past two decades, there have been no major improvements in the state's water capacity.
Mr. Roos says the southern half of the state, which relies heavily on the north for water, could use new ways to trap and hold the water from massive rainstorms that often cause mudslides and flooding but then rushes directly into the sea.
The Grand Central station for the state's water movement - the Sacramento and San Francisco Bay delta area - "is broke and needs to be fixed or nothing else matters," Roos adds. A state committee has been formed to analyze the problem and propose solutions, but action is not expected soon. Better distribution
Some observers say the drought has taught Californians another lesson: that there are economic and quality-of-life benefits to sending more water away from farms and toward fish, wildlife, and recreational uses.
"This prolonged crisis has pushed on citizens the lesson that when normal conditions return, people will still have to be always ready for drought," says Scott Downie, a fish habitat supervisor with the California Department of Fish and Game.
Mr. Downie credits the threat of irreversible damage to the state's once-invincible salmon population as a catalyst for loosening agriculture's grip on the state's water supply. Farmers have long been allotted about 85 percent of the water, with the remainder divided between wildlife and urban areas.
But last November, the Legislature passed a bill that sets aside 800,000 acre-feet of water annually for the environment - before agricultural and urban allotments - and establishes an annual $50 million restoration fund.
Farmers also will no longer get automatic renewal of 40-year contracts that came with heavily subsidized prices.
Instead, the state will implement a nonfixed-rate pricing system that encourages conservation.
But some environmentalists say this is only a first step.