Severe Drought Has U.S. West Fearing Worst ; Crisis Could Require Emergency Cutbacks for Homes and Businesses

Article excerpt

What is being described as the worst dry spell for centuries has already produced parched fields, starving livestock and pockets of smog.

The punishing drought that has swept California is now threatening the state's drinking water supply.

With no sign of rain, 17 rural communities providing water to 40,000 people are in danger of running out within 60 to 120 days. State officials said the number was likely to rise in the months ahead after the State Water Project, the main municipal water distribution system, announced on Friday that it did not have enough water to supplement the dwindling supplies of local agencies that provide water to an additional 25 million people. It is first time the project has turned off its spigot in its 54-year history.

State officials said they were moving to put emergency plans in place. In the worst case, they said drinking water would have to be brought by truck into parched communities and additional wells would have to be drilled to draw on groundwater.

The deteriorating situation would most likely mean imposing mandatory water conservation measures on homeowners and businesses, who have already been asked to voluntarily reduce their water use by 20 percent.

"Every day this drought goes on we are going to have to tighten the screws on what people are doing" said Gov. Jerry Brown, who was governor during the last major drought here, in 1976-77.

This latest development has underscored the urgency of a drought that has already produced parched fields, starving livestock and pockets of smog.

"We are on track for having the worst drought in 500 years," said B. Lynn Ingram, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at the University of California, Berkeley.

The drought, technically in its third year, is already forcing big shifts in behavior.

Farmers in Nevada said they had given up on even planting, while ranchers in Northern California and New Mexico said they were being forced to sell off cattle as fields that should be four feet high with grass are a blanket of brown and stunted stalks.

Fishing and camping in much of California has been outlawed, to protect endangered salmon and guard against fires. Many people said they had already begun to cut back drastically on taking showers, washing their car and watering their lawns.

Rain and snow showers brought relief in parts of the state at the week's end -- people emerging from a movie theater in West Hollywood on Thursday evening broke into applause upon seeing rain splattering on the sidewalk -- but they were nowhere near enough to make up for record-long dry stretches, officials said.

"I have experienced a really long career in this area, and my worry meter has never been this high," said Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, a statewide coalition. "We are talking historical drought conditions, no supplies of water in many parts of the state. My industry's job is to try to make sure that these kind of things never happen. And they are happening."

Officials are girding for the kind of geographical, cultural and economic battles that have long plagued a part of the country that is defined by a lack of water: between farmers and environmentalists, urban and rural users, and the northern and southern regions of this state. …