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Drought-Wracked California Communities Halt Building to Limit Water Use

March 2, 1991

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ Mary-Ann Warmerdam has the perfect solution to California’s problem of too many people and not enough water.

″We could secede from the nation and put up roadblocks″ to prevent the state’s population and thirst from growing, the Farm Bureau spokeswoman jokes. ″If not that, I guess we’ll just have to cope.″

While California farmers - who use up to 85 percent of the state’s water supply - have emerged as the biggest target for cutbacks during this fifth year of drought, some communities have erected legal roadblocks to limit residents’ consumption.

Already, at least a half-dozen communities have stopped approving new water hookups as people continue to pour into the parched state, looking to occupy an estimated 600 new houses a day.

″A few communities had moratoriums last fall, but now that we’ve had a dry winter, I know a lot more of them are seriously considering this,″ said Larry Joyce, an analyst with the California Department of Water Resources.

″Maybe some are using this as an excuse to limit growth,″ he said. ″But you can’t forget that right now their reservoirs are dry and they’re dealing with a real shortage.″

Five years of drought - hardly eased by 4 inches or more of rain in much of the state last week - have pitted the water-rich north against the heavily populated south, cities against rural farmers, beleaguered local water districts against thirsty residents.

And they have taken their toll in other ways both big and small:

- Nearly a dozen California counties have proclaimed drought disasters and are seeking aid from the state and federal government. Almost every California community has water rationing, conservation programs and depleted reservoirs.

- Farmers who depend on irrigation water from big government projects will get little or none of their normal supply this season. State agricultural revenues could dip as much as $2 billion this year. It all could translate into higher prices for consumers.

- This could be the worst fire season ever in California, and fire officials say they may have to just let homes burn. Last year, a record 864 structures burned and one person was killed. About 7,500 fires blackened 197,000 acres. Enough trees to fill logging trucks encircling the Earth have died due to lack of water or insect infestation.

- The Yosemite Falls, which normally run until August, could dry up in July as they did last year. At Pebble Beach’s golf courses, reduced watering has left fringe areas and some sections of fairways parched and yellowing. And movie and television production companies are flooding the California Film Commission for help finding lush locations that haven’t been burned brown by drought.

″I get questions almost daily: ‘I need to do a car commercial with a car going down a road next to a large, open, grassy field,’ ″ said Bob Berkus, production specialist for the commission. ″I have to ask them if they’re willing to go somewhere else within the state. If they have to stay in Southern California, they’re out of luck.″

The areas hardest hit are in the state’s midsection - Santa Barbara on the coast and the southern San Joaquin Valley between Bakersfield and Fresno.

Gov. Pete Wilson presented a $100 million drought plan last month that hastens water transfers to parched areas, bolsters fire protection and threatens cities with rationing if they don’t cut back voluntarily. It is up to the state’s thousands of water districts to allocate supplies locally, but Wilson said he would use emergency powers to enforce water rationing if communities don’t cooperate.

In Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest city, the City Council voted several days after Wilson announced his plan to impose hefty fines on residents who do not cut back.

California’s population has grown to more than 30 million, nearly a 26 percent increase from 1980 to 1990, and another 5 million to 7 million people are expected to swell the state’s population by the year 2000.

Many cities and counties that haven’t imposed building or water hookup moratoriums are talking about approving such growth barriers to control water consumption.

In the past year, Ventura, Santa Barbara and three cities in southern Riverside County have stopped approving new water meters. Marin County, just outside San Francisco, has a 2-year-old water hookup and building moratorium.

″The City Council took a lot of heat last year when they said Ventura won’t issue any water permits while the drought is still on. But I think they were just kind of ahead of their time and other folks will follow,″ said Bob Prodoehl, superintendent of building and safety in the city of 92,000.

Santa Barbara officials freely admit the moratorium gives them another tool to slow growth.

″People just want Santa Barbara to stay the way it is,″ said Lisa Leeks, a spokeswoman for the city of 85,000 people, who twice have turned down offers to tap into the state water system.

As a result, Santa Barbara residents have been forced to cut water use by one-third and the city is building a desalination plant that is expected to provide half its water supply upon completion next year.

Desalination is an expensive source of water, but it could be the wave of the future: A desalting facility is under construction on Santa Catalina Island, and others are under serious consideration in Marin and Monterey counties and by utilities serving millions of Californians.

″When you’re running out of water and you can’t get a drink or take a shower, the expense of desalination becomes less important,″ said Chris Martin of Boyle Engineering Corp. in Los Angeles.

In Marin County, the interests of residents who are conserving and builders who sued over the water hookup moratorium are on a collision course.

At the beginning of this month, residents’ use was limited to a mere 50 gallons per day per person - about one-fourth the state average use (running a full dishwasher load, for example, uses about 25 gallons). But the water board is considering letting some of the 75 developers on a hookup waiting list proceed with projects in exchange for conservation.

Opponents such as board member Joan Boessenecker call it ″rubbing salt into a raw wound″ for residents suffering water cutbacks.

To avoid moratoriums, developers have been making concessions in other fast-growing areas such as Contra Costa County, where builders have agreed to delay landscaping until the drought emergency ends.

″We’ll probably be forced into deeper rationing, but we don’t plan to stop growth,″ said John Coleman, director of the East Bay Municipal Utilities District, which has 1.1 million users.

″The answer is developing new resources and reclaiming more water,″ Coleman said.

It helps that, after five years of virtually no rain, conservation finally has taken hold in many parts of the state.

It’s old hat that people are taking only brief showers, lawns are rarely watered and are being painted green instead, and restaurants serve water only on request. But now, creativity is coming into play.

At Disneyland, for example, water-saving ″flush-o-meters″ have been installed on toilets in the Anaheim park’s nearly 200 restrooms. Coupled with other moves, that’s helping reduce the park’s water use by more than 20 percent.

And Raging Waters, a San Dimas park that features swimming pools and water slides, cut its water use 20 percent by, among other things, designing decks so water dripping off bathers goes back into the pools.

″It’s amazing how much water comes off a person’s swimsuit after they get out,″ said park spokesman Kent Lemasters.

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