THE American Southwest is heading into the fourth year of a drought that is prompting frantic attempts to wean residents from faucets as ranchers begin to wonder if they will be pitching dust instead of hay this summer. The dry spell, the worst to hit the region since the mid-1970s, extends throughout much of Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, and Arizona.
But the biggest impact is being felt in California, where the effects can be unusual:
In Los Angeles, Mayor Tom Bradley (D) this week called for mandatory water rationing for the first time in 12 years. Special ``drought cops'' will begin patrolling neighborhoods, on the lookout for residents who are too extravagant with their spigots.
In Santa Barbara, which is threatening to become the Sahara of the Southwest, officials are considering importing water from Canada in barges, using an oil pipeline to bring it down from the North, or building a plant to turn seawater into tap water.
In Calistoga, the Napa Valley town known for its mineral water, residents are supplying their tonic to the world but are worried they may not have enough to drink at home. The town's famous springs produce water too rich in minerals for government drinking standards.
Thus, even though the water is being bottled and shipped off to Yuppies across the country, the city is having trouble finding enough for residents to drink.
``Basically, it is a dry year across the West,'' says Kristen Dillon, a policy analyst with the Western Governors Association. ``Everyone is concerned.''
In some ways, the region is better off than during the last major drought, in 1976-1977. Many states and communities have become more adept at managing water supplies and planning for droughts. And a conservation ethic has begun to take hold. A few more water-stingy shower heads have been installed here, a few more efficient farm irrigation systems there.
Yet there are also more pressures and problems. Because of political and environmental concerns, virtually no new water big projects are being built.
Populations are climbing throughout the region - by 6.2 million in California since the mid-1970s. And because many residents are beginning to conserve water as a normal routine, it is often difficult to get them to cut back further.
The drought has struck unevenly. Among those whose pocketbooks will be most affected are farmers and ranchers in areas where there are no big storage resevoirs. In southern Utah, ranchers are already concerned about the lack of good range land for cattle and sheep this summer.
In agricultural valleys south of Carson City, Nevada, farmers are poised for smaller alfalfa crops. Reno is expected to go to mandatory water rationing soon. Phoenix's water supplies are down but manageable.
``There will be some significant localized impacts,'' says Bonnie Colby, a professor of agriculture and resource economics at the University of Arizona.
Although California is still better off than in 1976-77, the current drought cycle is one of the worst this century. State officials are predicting the loss to the economy this year will be about $1.2 billion - from smaller crop yields, less boating and other recreation activities, and damage to commercial timber.
``We're dry but not parched,'' says Dean Thompson, a drought specialist with the state Department of Water Resources.
The central coastal district, between Santa Barbara and Monterey, is worst off. The area is almost entirely reliant on groundwater supplies.
It and other central coast cities imposed mandatory rationing some time ago. Some Santa Barbara residents place plastic buckets in the shower: What's caught in the containers is used to water lawns. Even so, more steps are going to have to be taken.
San Francisco is expected to adopt a mandatory rationing plan next week. Los Angeles has dodged some of the severest impacts, until now. Several years of light snowpack in northern California mountains, where much of its water comes from, plus smaller alotments from the Colorado River and legal squabbles over others, have left the city thirsty.
In his call for mandatory cutbacks, Mayor Bradley is seeking a 10 percent reduction in consumption. Water surcharges would be imposed on those who don't comply.
The plan must still be approved by the City Council, though, and there may be opposition from some members who don't think the city's shortages are that severe.
A four-year drought is bad, but seven-year cycles aren't uncommon in the West. There have also been 50-year cycles. If that isn't enough to cause pause, consider what the fire season will be like this fall.