Drenched California bids adieu to drought, for now

SAN FRANCISCO Tue Mar 29, 2011 8:54pm EDT

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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - From snowy mountains to flooded highways, it's clear California's three-year drought is over. What's not certain is whether the state will use the breathing room to fix a broken water system.

A batch of late winter storms that dumped snow on ski resorts and turned creeks into rivers unofficially ended the drought for many Californians.

Governor Jerry Brown plans to call an official end to the drought on Wednesday, after a snowpack survey that indicates how much water is stored in the mountains, his office said.

The drought has taken a toll on California and its economy. It is blamed for some of the worst wildfires in the state's history, the loss of crops and jobs in some of the most productive agricultural land in the world and greater financial strain on stretched local and state governments.

Automated indicators already show the winter was one of the top 10 snowiest on record, and reservoirs throughout the state are filled to well above average.

"There are only a few that won't reach full up," said the state's part-time chief hydrologist, Maury Roos, although he warned that even a bumper year would not wet California's whistle for much more than one dry winter.

"Two (dry) years in a row gives us trouble," he said. "We've been adding demand to a system that hasn't been added much to in 20 years, or really 30 years."

California's population has exploded in recent decades and it's unimproved water system is now ready to burst. Now state planners fear global warming will make the state even drier.

WATER WARS

Most of California's rain and snow falls in the northern part of the state and gets used in the southern part, including the agricultural Central Valley, one of the nation's biggest food sources, and greater Los Angeles area.

A water war between environmentalists fighting to keep more water in rivers to protect fish and farmers eager to grow food has spilled into courts, satisfying no one.

A 2009 agreement between legislators and then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger set up new state groups to create a cohesive state water plan, but the $11 billion bond measure that glued together the deal was pushed to 2012 in the face of voter skepticism.

"Some of the tough choices were deferred," said Paul Weiland, a lawyer for the Kern County Water Agency, which supplies water to farmers.

The Environmental Defense Fund's director of strategy for land, water and wildlife, Laura Harnish, argued that California's main problem was how it managed water -- not whether it had enough.

"Water is priced as though it's infinite and it's not," she said. She saw the 2009 agreements as moving in the right direction for protecting the environment and people, and predicted new Governor Brown would find time for water despite the pressures of budget negotiations.

But she admitted the wet year could breed complacency. "The wet year takes us out of triage and back into preventative medicine, which has benefits and drawbacks," she said. "A wet year -- it is a little bit of an illusion that things are OK."

(Editing by Mary Milliken and Todd Eastham)

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