Rain deluge brings scant relief to a parched West

Recent storms haven't dented a two-year drought that is costing states billions of dollars.

As sheets of pelting rain smacked her giant golf umbrella, schoolteacher Sandy Winston stood in a hooded raincoat and knee-high galoshes on a bridge overlooking the cement-lined Los Angeles River.

"It's hard to imagine we're in a drought with these steady storms dousing us with all this water," she said as a torrent of water gushed beneath her.

It's a perception that remains common here after a storm system left watermarks on knees across the West before traversing the continent and hitting the Northeast with its worst blizzard in years.

Several inches of rain were dumped on southern California and parts of Nevada and Arizona. One night brought 7.7 inches to Pasadena, Calif., topping the record for this time of year by 4.3 inches.

But climatologists and water officials say the brief deluge will not even dent the two-year drought across the West, which remains the worst in decades.

Still, from the Intermountain West and Central Rockies to the Plains, Midwest, and Great Lakes, most of America remains dangerously parched. The drought is moderate to extreme in nine Western states according to the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb.

The situation is costing billions to agriculture, and providing little relief to the dry forests and foliage that, last summer, produced the worst fire season in a century. It is also exacerbating conflicts between neighboring states as their rural, urban, and farm populations tangle over water-usage agreements.

"While it is true that this drought situation is in a sense a cyclical problem that will likely abate in time, it is showing the growing populations of the West that they can't continue to operate without better long-term planning and conservation," says Mark Svoboda, a climatologist at the drought center of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Lake Powell, a reservoir along the Colorado River that supplies Arizona, Nevada, and California, is less than half full - it's lowest level in 30 years. Reservoirs in Colorado are reported at half their normal levels as well. Indeed, 2002 was the state's driest year since 1895.

This year may not break the dry cycle. Colorado's January snowfall was less than normal for the sixth straight year and there are insufficient snow packs across the mountainous West to supply water in the coming seasons once the winter melts.

"Both this year and last, the storm systems that usually come through got deflected farther north so that California, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, and Colorado all are experiencing their second straight year of less-than-normal snow pack," says Douglas Lecomte, senior meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center in Maryland. "That is a major concern because the major part of winter is nearly over and we have no sign of relief for this year's or last year's poor conditions."

Besides causing clashes over water use, the drought is costing states billions.

"Most people don't recognize that drought is the costliest natural disaster in America," says Michael Hayes, an analyst with the drought mitigation service.

Scientists say the causes of the drought are threefold. La Niña, a global weather pattern associated with high atmospheric pressure and below-normal precipitation, technically ended in early 2001, but is credited with initiating some of the parched conditions that still linger.

So-called El Niño conditions, associated with huge warm water masses that help drive rainstorms, have returned - and the cloud patterns have left the US Rockies dry.

Last, a very large sea-surface temperature pattern that has existed since 1998 has produced record warmth in the western Pacific and cool waters in the eastern Pacific.

The extreme drought is pressing policymakers to undertake measures such as boosting crop insurance, rationing, and making water-sharing arrangements with neighboring states. .

"Basically every state in America needs to have plans in place for all the key water users to move into action when these episodes occur," says Mr. Hayes.

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