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Cries for Water Rationing Drowned Out by Storms : Drought: Some areas are scaling back plans to restrict usage. Officials caution against a too-hasty retreat.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Drenched by a month of remarkable storms, many relieved California communities are relaxing rationing programs that have forced consumers onto uncomfortable water diets not experienced since the state’s last great drought 14 years ago.

The ferocious storms, which continued to soak much of the state Tuesday, have dramatically boosted annual rainfall levels and the crucial Sierra Nevada snowpack, comforting once-panicky water managers and persuading them to soften their cries for conservation.

In Monterey and San Luis Obispo, along California’s previously parched Central Coast, rains that have turned golden hillsides green have also filled local reservoirs. Authorities are expected to scale back rationing programs in the coming weeks.

In Mariposa, near Yosemite National Park, the relentless downpour has brought Stockton Creek Reservoir up to the brim, prompting local officials to give Mariposans a reprieve from harsh water usage limits imposed in February.

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In Marin County, news that the water district board will consider tonight whether to revise its notoriously strict rationing program has sparked near-jubilation among residents weary of capturing bathwater to flush toilets and irrigate plants.

“Thank goodness,” sighed Dorothy Killion, 71, of Mill Valley, who has been struggling to cope with month-old cutbacks limiting each resident to 50 gallons per day. “There are just two of us, you know, which means only 100 gallons a day. That’s nothing! You just can’t do it!”

State water officials acknowledged that the continuing storms provide cause for some relaxation of rationing programs. But they cautioned against a too-hasty retreat, warning that such actions could be misinterpreted by the public and erode consumers’ budding conservation ethic.

“We are pleased that with the March rains many communities will not have to endure the very severe rationing that had been planned,” said Jonas Minton, chief of water conservation for the state Department of Water Resources. “But we hope the water districts will begin converting their programs to aim for long-term conservation goals, which are needed to deal with the population increases occurring in wet and dry years.”

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So far, communities that seem to have benefited the most get their water supplies from smaller reservoirs that have filled quickly with March rains, while urban regions that rely on piped-in water from California’s giant state or federal systems have seen less drastic gains.

Just last month, water managers throughout California were busily drawing up blueprints for programs designed to cut water usage by as much as 50%. With reservoir levels hovering at record low levels and the snowpack picture in the western Sierra Nevada looking bleak, there seemed no choice but to revive rationing schemes that helped the state survive the last serious drought of 1976-77.

The State Water Project slashed deliveries to the Metropolitan Water District, Southern California’s water wholesaler, and other urban customers by 90%. The MWD, in turn, announced cuts in supplies to its customers of 50%.

Then came March. Pelted by a series of torrential storms, California was suddenly all wet, the mountains were crowned with snow and levels in local, state and federal reservoirs were climbing.

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“It’s been raining like crazy up here. It’s cooking,” said Mark Rowney, general manager of the public utility district in tiny Mariposa. “It’s remarkable. Everyone is very excited.”

No wonder. Last month, things were looking grim for Mariposa, a town nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills. The local reservoir, which provides about 75% of the town’s supply, was down to 22% of capacity on Feb. 27. Four years of drought had so strained the ground water supply that six of the town’s 35 wells, some of which had already been lost to contamination, had dried up.

In response, the district imposed one of the harshest rationing programs in the state, limiting residents to 100 gallons per day for a single-person household, and 50 gallons more for each additional person.

Since then, the rains have filled Stockton Creek Reservoir, leaving the town “in great shape,” Rowney said. The district’s board has voted to double the amount of water that residents can use without facing fines. The allocations may become more generous next month.

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The Fresno County town of Orange Cove--where residents were asked to limit use to an impossible 10 gallons per day--also has been rescued by the rains. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has increased its shipment of water to the community of 6,000. Officials recently advised customers to aim for a more endurable 50% conservation goal.

In Marin, water district board member Chris Morrison said reports that the county’s seven reservoirs are at 71% of normal for this time of year prompted him to suggest relaxation of one of the state’s stiffest rationing program, which threatens water scofflaws with fines of up to $1,000 and a month in jail.

“I voted for this (50-gallon-per-person) originally, but our reservoir supply has doubled and the program is just too tough, too punitive,” said Morrison, who wants the district to return to a voluntary conservation program.

In Southern California, Santa Barbara officials have said that, for now, they will stick with a rationing program requiring an overall 33% reduction in water use. Plans to proceed with still harsher cutbacks have been shelved.

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The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has struck a similar posture, postponing consideration of its plans to toughen to 25% a program that now requires households to cut water usage 10%--and 15% starting May 1--from 1986 levels.

MWD officials said they expect that their board will relax its planned cutback of 50% in April, returning instead to a 31% cut in deliveries to its 27 customers.

“I think it’s highly likely,” said Dick Balcerzak, MWD assistant general manager. “We’re very relieved by these rains, because the pain of rationing (under the 50% cut) would have been pretty severe for many.”

If increased water deliveries occur, many MWD customers may respond by rolling back rationing programs. In San Diego, which receives 95% of its water from the MWD, officials said the improving drought picture may at least prompt a delay in the imposition of new countywide water use prohibitions scheduled for April 1.

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In Ventura County, the possibility of additional water from the MWD has prompted two cities to postpone plans to step up their water conservation programs and sparked calls for increased allocations in a third city.

Times staff writers Joanna M. Miller in Ventura and Amy Wallace in San Diego contributed to this story.


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