Drought Leaves a Legacy in Golden State
Farmers will no longer get special treatment in allocation of California's water supplies
LOS ANGELES — POLITICAL officials in northern and southern California are jumping for joy as they mark the end of the state's historic, six-year drought.
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.
"Thankfully we have gotten the rain and snow this year to halt this drought," says Hal Candee, a water specialist for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "But the state and federal government have so drastically misallocated water in this state for six years that a new level of consciousness has to be sustained."
Mr. Candee says that for the first three years of drought federal and state water managers continued to give urban and agricultural users 100 percent of their allotments, while fish and wildlife areas were devastated.
"We have learned that these areas cannot take this kind of mismanagement and that if another drought situation begins such liberties should not be taken," he says. Farmers concerned
While environmentalists and others are cheered by these developments, farmers are apprehensive as California puts the drought behind it.
"It seems like the water drought is over but the regulatory drought has just begun," says Allen Garcia, a rice farmer in Orland, Calif., and director of the Northern California Water Association. His water supplies have quintupled in price recently due to increased state regulations.
The same bill that is giving wildlife areas priority over agricultural regions will also allow for so-called "pulse flows" of cold water from reservoirs where salmon spawn. But such flows could divert water at critical times for some crops.
"When something in your garden needs water, it needs it now," Mr. Garcia says. "If you can't use it when you need it, it's the same thing as having your water taken away."
Mary Ann Warmerdam, director of natural resources for the California Farm Bureau Federation, says such developments have left farmers on edge.
"There is no indication that agriculture will be able to come up with what it needs to fill in new deficiencies," she says. "So is the drought over for us? The water's in the reservoirs, but we may not be able to get it because of regulations."
But she adds that the drought has had some beneficial impacts for farmers.
For one thing, it has encouraged the state to be more thifty with its groundwater. Also, the drought has led the state to consider flooding rice fields in winter, which would provide a habitat for migrating fowl while increasing field fertility.
"Five years ago, rice was a nasty commodity that wasted water," Ms. Warmerdam says. "Now you hear environmentalists singing its praises." Urban areas conserve
The final level of consciousness raising, say observers, has come among urban users.
"Los Angeles finally got it through its head that water doesn't come merely from a spigot," says Bob Gomperz, spokesman for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, an umbrella organization that provides water to 15 local agencies serving 15 million people.
Through advertising campaigns, as well as voluntary and mandatory rationing, the agency has been able to cut water use by 20 percent across six counties.
"People responded well, and we think the ethic will stay out of necessity," Mr. Gomperz says.