THE three major rainstorms which buffeted much of California beginning Feb. 9 have dominated the state's front pages, spawned on-scene TV news wars, and riveted public attention with dramatic helicopter rescues, mass evacuations, and scenes of massive flooding.
But they have not put a dent in the state's extensive drought, now into its sixth year.
"We've been on a starvation diet for over five years and just been given three or four good meals," says Allen Jones, chief spokesman for the State Department of Water Resources (DWR).
A number of local communities - San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Marin County - have seen significant increases in the reservoir systems that feed them from the coastal mountains, Mr. Jones says.
A fourth storm which hit central and southern California last weekend brought far less than its expected rainfall, and various squalls still threaten at press time, according to Juaneata Nossett of the DWR Flood Center. But the current statewide figures still register below normal for the month.
"We have a long way to go," says Maurice Roos, chief hydrologist for the DWR, noting that precipitation in the northern Sierra range is at two-thirds average for the year. The current rains and those forecast for the rest of February are doing nothing more than insure 1992 will be wetter than the postwar period's driest year, 1977, which tallied 20 percent of normal, he says.
The major repositories that feed the State Water Project and the Central Valley Water Project are fed from runoff of the Sierra Nevada mountains north and east of Sacramento and the Klamath and Cascade Mountain ranges further north. Both remain at historic low levels.
Lake Oroville, the main storage reservoir for the State Water Project, holds just over a third of capacity - 1.5 million acre-feet. (One acre-foot is about 400,000 gallons, enough water to cover one acre, one-foot deep. It is considered enough water for a family of four for one year.)
Shasta Reservoir, north of Redding, feeds the Central Valley Project, run by the US Bureau of Reclamation. But the reservoir is holding only one-third of its capacity of 4.5 million acre feet.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles residents and the media are lambasting local weather forecasters and public officials for inadequate warnings which left motorists stranded atop vehicles and may have contributed to seven fatalities.
Renewed debates rage in both city halls and state assemblies over an inadequate flood system in the south that often fails to meet winter storm emergencies and has no way of retaining the resource so desperately needed throughout the year.
One estimate put the loss of fresh water out to sea at 500,000 acre-feet, about the amount used by the entire city in 1991. But, Mr. Roos explains, "there simply aren't any good, suitable dam sites in southern California."
Some minor sites have been suggested over the years but have been stalled by environmental concerns or cost. One proposal for a dam on the Santa Margarita River near San Diego is held up by concerns that its non-rainy season output would be too minimal. Another, on Sespe Creek near Ventura, has been resisted by supporters of a nearby condor refuge.
"You could get small amounts of water and flood protection from these dams," says Roos. "But they would not be cost-effective."
As residents of several communities were busy stretching plastic over hillsides to prevent saturation that would cause slippage, others built sandbag walls to prevent floodwaters from reaching residential streets.
While many recreationists took to the streets and hills in inner tubes, refuse from sewers mixed with untreated sewage to foul beaches from Malibu to Long Beach. Several canyon roads were closed because of mudslides.
Damage estimates to cars, homes, businesses and property are $30 million.
DWR's Roos says the lessons of 1992 are that, unlike other areas of the state, floods in a drainage area like Los Angeles "pop up with little or no advance notice, and people must be prepared at all times."