Two Years After Drought, California Faces a Dry Year

With little water in reservoirs, farmers will have to buy water elsewhere, which will drive up food prices

THE state that produces half the fruits and vegetables in the United States is facing its driest year since its devastating 1987-1992 drought. With 98 percent of the rain/snow season over, California's Bureau of Reclamation on May 9 reduced allocations from the mammoth Central Valley Project to Sacramento River water-rights holders and some San Joaquin Valley users to 75 percent.

Already, some rice and tomato farmers in the Sacramento Valley are cutting back yield projections as they make do with 35 percent of normal.

The news comes on top of a declaration of a statewide drought watch because of disappointing rain levels and a diminished snow pack after last year's drought-breaking snowfalls.

``Six years of drought have been followed by last year's above-average precipitation, but insufficient snow pack and runoff this year,'' says Douglas Wheeler, state Secretary for Resources. He says the snowfall in the mountain systems that feed the state's two great agricultural valleys - the Sacramento in the north and the San Joaquin in the south - were so thin this winter that only carry-over storage from reservoirs is preventing another drought.

``The longer-term outlook will remain precarious without increased precipitation next winter,'' Mr. Wheeler says. In March, the statewide mountain snowpack was a little more than 40 percent of average, compared with 150 percent last year. As of April 25, storage in the 166 major reservoirs, statewide, averaged 90 percent of normal. But demands in excess of the year's snow melt runoff will deplete the reservoirs for the rest of the summer and fall.

Only seven years in this century have been drier for the Sacramento River. The farming community, which uses 80 percent of the state's water, is most concerned.

``When the farmer here is only getting 35 percent of his normal water, it affects crucial planning for the future because banks are reluctant to lend without guaranteed crop yields as collateral,'' says Richard Golb, executive director of the Northern California Water Association. Since the May 9 announcement doesn't increase that 35 percent amount, farmers will be searching to buy water elsewhere - which could drive up produce prices.

But agriculture is only one concern. According to Peter Gleick, director of environment programs for the Pacific Institute, wildlife is even more vulnerable.

``We have learned from past experiences that farmers, industry, and residential users can all be resilient in cutting back or switching to crops that use less water,'' he says. ``Wildlife dosn't have such resilience.''

Despite the lean water year, most cities will not be dusting off rationing plans they used during the 1987-to-1992 drought, according to the Department of Water Resources (DWR). But to increase awareness of water shortages, Gov. Pete Wilson has declared May as Water Awareness Month, to remind state residents that the same conservation plans they employed for six years will help delay the need for formal measures.

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