California Rains Turn Taupe Hills Green, but Rationing Continues

AROUND a half-moon desk, the five members of the local water board came to consider making history. On the agenda: whether to import water by tanker from Canada to help ease the drought. This bedroom and farming town north of Santa Barbara would be the first in the nation to do so.

Outside, rain cascaded down. Cars swooshed through puddles on the street. Inside, the talk was arcane and heated - about acre-feet of water, environmental impact statements, contractor shenanigans.

In the end, the rain triumphed. Because of recent downpours, the board decided to delay shipping in Canada's water.

The deliberations that went on here this week inside a barracks-style building are being repeated up and down the nation's most populous state.

After a month of heavy rain and snowfall - in some places the heaviest on record - cotton-mouthed California is weighing the impact "Miracle March" will have on one of the worst droughts in history.

The headstrong but welcome weather has eased but not eradicated five years of dryness. It is, nonetheless, prompting some communities to scale back draconian rationing plans.

But it is also bringing concern that residents will be lulled into abandoning conservation, undermining long-term efforts to overhaul outmoded water pricing and distribution in a state whose growth seems unbounded even if its resources aren't.

"It's like lower gasoline prices," says Richard Berk, a sociologist at the University of California Los at Angeles who has studied conservation patterns. "They give us a false sense of security. The fact is there are going to be serious shortages in the future."

Fierce storms swooping down from Alaska and low-pressure systems clawing in from the Pacific have turned tupe hills green in southern California, frosted the Sierra Nevadas white, and transformed resevoirs into bodies of water again.

Officially, precipitation in March has been more than double the normal monthly average. But for the year as a whole the state has still received only about 60 percent of what it should.

Resevoirs across the state are at 65 percent of capacity. The snowpack in the Sierras - the main spigot for urban southern California - is 250 percent ahead in March but 40 percent behind for the year.

"We were down to rations," says Jeff Cohen of the state Drought Center. "Now most people can flush their toilets again."

Emergency eases

Despite the relief, most cities and towns are waiting to see what the entire rainy season will bring before scaling back conservation efforts. The moisture has taken the edge of the emergency but not dulled it completely.

In Santa Clara County, the heart of Silicon Valley, the local water district this week decided to increase mandatory cutbacks in consumption from 20 percent to 25 percent. Although the rations are stingier than many would like, they are not the 45 percent reductions the board had been considering just a few weeks ago.

In Marin County, north of San Francisco, where residents are supposed to limit themselves to 50 gallons a day - barely enough to wash the soap off - water officials are expected to revisit the plan within the next few weeks.

Los Angeles recently postponed going to a stricter rationing plan but has not backed off on the one it has. One reason the outlook is brighter here: The state has said it may soon release more water from a huge reservoir system that feeds southern California.

Santa Barbara may lift a year-old ban on watering lawns. The city is pushing ahead, however, with plans to build a desalination plant.

"We have to prepare for the fact that we might have another five years of below average rainfall," says Bill Ferguson, a city water planner.

On the farm, the rain has come too late to help the state's cotton and rice growers. It has, however, provided groundwater and natural irrigation for many fruit and nut growers who had been looking at a Dust Bowl year.

Pipelines and tankers

The rains will likely diminish, but not do away with, more outlandish schemes to keep the Golden State golden. Federal and state funding is being sought to research laying a water pipeline along the ocean floor from Alaska to California - an idea promoted by, among others, the 49th state's iconoclastic governor, Walter Hickel.

The Goleta Water District board is hoping replenished local supplies and desalination will carry it through the drought. The board hasn't ruled out reviving tankering water down from Canada if adequate supplies can't be found. Clearly, though, trying to pioneer such a scheme has taken its toll on the board.

As member John DeLoreto puts it: "My personal recommendation is that no other community look at fooling around with this option ever again."

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