LOOKING at the lush green hills that surround San Francisco Bay, it is hard to believe that a drought could be just around the corner. But it hasn't rained here for a month and the winter months that constitute California's rainy season produced few big storms this year, leaving area reservoirs below capacity and snowpacks in the Sierra Nevada mountains at unusually low levels.
Such a year a decade ago began a two-year drought that devastated California agriculture and forced many Bay Area water agencies to adopt mandatory water conservation measures.
``The situation is not critical yet,'' says National Weather Service meteorologist Dale Goudeau. ``It would take two dry years in a row to produce drought conditions such as the ones we experienced in the late 1970s,'' he says, adding that most reservoirs can hold a two-years' supply of water.
But local and state water officials, spurred by the ghost of the 1976 to 1978 drought and concerned about water supply for the Bay Area's 6 million people, are gearing up conservation programs this year in case next year is dry.
The East Bay Municipal Water District, which provides water for over 1.1 million people, has already approved a voluntary water conservation program designed to cut water use by 15 percent.
The program, which will involve a comprehensive media campaign - everything from water bill stuffers to individual meetings with the district's 500 largest water users - shows how the district is being more cautious about water supply, according to general manager Jerome Gilbert.``We would not have taken this action 10 years ago,'' he says, noting that the chances of a second drought year are a slim 1 in 500.
Across the bay, the city of San Francisco is in the process of using its unique dual water distribution system, constructed as a fire precaution after the 1906 earthquake and fire, for water conservation.
According to Don Birrer, general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, the system will allow the city to separate potable water received from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir water in Yosemite National Park from non-potable water taken from Lake Merced.
``This will free up anywhere from 6 to 15 million gallons a day of drinking water,'' says Mr. Birrer. ``With this system in place, San Francisco will be virtually drought-proof.''
Agencies such as the East Bay water district and the San Francisco commission are able to take aggressive water conservation actions in part because of a process of institutionalization that has occurred in water conservation since the 1976 to 1978 drought. One of the biggest steps toward formalizing water conservation policy occurred in 1983, when state legislation was passed calling for all water districts serving more than 3,000 customers to develop water conservation plans by 1986.
In response to these plans, the California Department of Water Resources has beefed up its Office of Water Conservation to assist local agencies in developing water conservation programs. Jonaf Minton, chief of the Urban Water Management Branch, says the state has a $4.5 million water conservation budget that includes a staff of 30 who assist local communities, doing everything from lining leaky irrigation ditches to distributing shower heads that use less water.
The Committee for Water Policy Consensus, a Bay Area nonprofit group formed in 1982, is actively promoting adoption of water conservation guidelines to complement the urban water management plans.
Water conservation project leader Lori Griggs says the organization's motivation for promoting the guidelines, which include development guidelines for the types of plants used in landscaping and a limitation on the percentage area of turf allowed in residential areas, is mixed. ``Conservation has a value in and of itself,'' Ms. Griggs says, ``but I would not be frank if I didn't say that there is a political motivation as well.''
Although it is clear that political necessity and the institutionalization of water conservation have better prepared agencies for a drought, it is not so clear that the California public is ready to cut back on watering lawns, washing cars, and flushing toilets.
Lillian Wyman, a 31-year resident of Piedmont, a community surrounded by the city of Oakland, grins sheepishly as she hoses down the sidewalk leading up to her house. ``Water conservation, you say? Well, I'll tell you one thing, I won't be doing this if we have another drought,'' she says, turning off the hose. ``In the last drought, we put a brick in our toilet and used two sets of dishes so we wouldn't have to wash so often.''
``Yeah, I remember the drought,'' says Oakland landlord Bob Fenton, squinting in the noonday sun as he uncoils the green hose on the side of his four-unit apartment building and begins dousing the front lawn. ``People really pulled together to cut back. But now I think people have completely forgotten it.''
Eric McGuire, Environmental Services Coordinator for the Marin Municipal Water District, which serves 53,000 customers north of San Francisco, says the public responded well to the water rationing program imposed during the last drought, cutting back consumption a remarkable 62 percent.
But he says increased per capita water consumption, coupled with the fact that about half of Marin County's residents are newcomers who didn't experience the last drought, will make their voluntary 15 percent reduction plan more difficult.
``Per capita consumption went right back up to where it was before the drought and it is still going up,'' Mr. McGuire says. ``We have learned that if we don't continue to keep water conservation in the public eye, the whole idea will float away.''