Parched California Faces Strictest Laws on Water Usage and Distribution

NECK-high in recent regulations designed to clear the air overhead, Californians now are being asked to curb their thirst before the land beneath them shrivels like a prune. After four years of drought, a state emergency looms, and California officials are imposing the tightest restrictions on water use in state history.

An arid ``rainy season'' from October to January secured the second half of 1990 as the driest six months on record. Only the 1929-34 drought has been longer.

From agriculturists in northern Butte County to car washers in San Diego, from industrialists to home users, water wasters have been served notice:

The Metropolitan Water District, which delivers water to 27 agencies in southern California, will call for a 31 percent cutback in mid-February. Unless the drought breaks soon, deliveries to farms will be cut 50 percent.

Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and City Council leaders Friday called for mandatory cutbacks of 10 to 15 percent for the city's 3.5 million residents, with more to come. The eastern Sierra snowpack, which usually provides the city with 70 percent of its water, is only 13 percent of its normal size. City Council President John Ferraro called the situation ``desperation time,'' while Mayor Bradley called the figures ``astonishing'' and ``frightening.''

The California Water Resources Control Board held two days of emergency meetings and considered 18 proposals, among them: cutting water for some staple crops (oranges and almonds) to subsistence levels, reducing salinity-level standards for drinking water, and limiting domestic use to 300 gallons a day per household.

Decisions are scheduled for Feb. 7.

To further coordinate the hundreds of measures being taken by local agencies, Gov. Pete Wilson on Friday created an emergency task force with top officials from agriculture and finance, fish and forestry, health, and military. The board is to report in 15 days on whether a state emergency should be declared. A drought administrator was appointed to coordinate state actions with private agencies and commissions.

``Worry is turning into panic,'' Governor Wilson said. ``This should not be. Concern is justified. Panic is not.''

``This is a very encouraging sign that all the various impacts will be weighed in full,'' says Lisa Lein, spokeswoman for the Association of California Water Agencies, which represents 400 local water districts supplying 90 percent of the water in California. ``It will ensure that no one segment or geographical area will get hit with a disproportionate burden of getting through this drought.''

David Kennedy, director of the California State Department of Water Resources, will be the governor's drought administrator. He does not rule out a state emergency. The action, he says, ``would be tantamount to a war-powers situation that is not entered lightly'' and can provide suspensions of the laws and contracts governing water usage.

``First, we need to get all the facts on the table ... who has what, who needs it, where it is,'' says Mr. Kennedy. The board will then consider water transfers statewide, ways of moving water from lower-valued uses to high-valued uses.

Already stung by the worst freeze this century, thousands of farmers have already lost entire harvests, resulting in increased citrus prices nationwide.

Since California produces half the country's vegetables as well, continued drought is expected to affect those supplies and prices too, due to the high cost of alternative water sources.

Several communities are already using or are contemplating use of desalinated water. Many areas are paying the additional cost of pumping ground water, which increases as the ground water lowers.

For his part, Kennedy says a spirit of cooperation can emerge only after each group is assured its interests will be protected. ``There tends to be a lot of mythology flying around at a time like this,'' he says, ``all the farmers are wasting water or everyone in southern California is washing down their driveways.''

Chris Chandler, assemblyman for the third district, which includes six northern counties, said he feels ``that the north did not cause this drought and should not be targeted unfairly in this drought situation.'' But he expressed relief that the governor had not yet imposed emergency measures.

``We can't lose the long view that things will be much more difficult in the future if people are told that their contract rights might not mean anything.''

One of the most bitter campaigns in state history was fought in 1960 over a project to turn the Feather River south and pump its water 300 miles to southern California. The so-called state Water Project - resulting in the ``bloom in the desert'' that has allowed Los Angeles to thrive and grow - was to prevent the very situation that now exists. State officials say they may have to reduce the southward flow of northern California water by up to 85 percent.

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