A top state water official said the decision by the federal government to cut in half coastal Southern California's water allocation from the Colorado River is a "setback but not a crisis."
Jeanine Jones, drought preparedness manager for the Department of Water Resources, said she agrees with officials of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California that there is enough water in storage to offset the reduction for at least two years.
Beyond that, she said, the district will need to "decide what the game plan is and quickly accelerate it," even if the price tag is high.
At the MWD, a regional agency that provides water to 26 cities and water agencies serving 17 million people in six counties, officials say they have a plan to deal with a drought like the one that struck California in the late 1980s.
This time, they note, the drought is not caused by lack of rain -- although that, too, poses a problem -- but by the inability of California to meet a deadline to keep the federal government from imposing cutbacks.
"We're lucky," said Debra Man, MWD vice president for water transfers and exchanges. "We've been preparing for the worst-case scenario. We're prepared for hydrological droughts as well as political droughts."
On Tuesday night, assistant Interior Secretary Bennett Raley ordered the immediate suspension of shipments to the MWD of so-called surplus water -- water provided on the basis of yearly decisions by the secretary. The order followed the breakdown of negotiations involving MWD, the Imperial Irrigation District, San Diego County Water Authority and Coachella Valley Water District on a proposed transfer of water from farms to cities.
That transfer would have been a significant step toward reducing the state's take from the Colorado, an amount that exceeds California's legal allotment.
For the MWD and its customers, the suspension means the loss of about 50% of the water the agency has received annually from the river.
For decades, the MWD has gotten surplus shipments of as much as 800,000 acre-feet, enough to serve 6 million people. Unless Raley rescinds his order, that water is gone. An acre-foot, the amount of water that could cover an acre to the depth of one foot, is roughly the amount consumed by two families in a year.
To meet immediate needs, the MWD has stored more than 2 million acre-feet in reservoirs and aquifers throughout the state. Although environmental problems can arise when a reservoir or aquifer is depleted too quickly, the stored water, in a pinch, could compensate for the cutoff of surplus water for two or more years, officials said.
If this winter brings healthy El Nino rains, the stored water could last even longer, because local reservoirs and aquifers would be replenished, giving local agencies another option besides buying water from the MWD.
Of the six reservoirs holding MWD water, the newest and biggest is Diamond Valley Lake near Hemet in Riverside County, opened in 2000 at a cost of $2.1 billion, with a capacity of 800,000 acre-feet.
The MWD also has water stored in three other reservoirs in Riverside County, in Castaic Lake in Los Angeles County, in San Luis Reservoir near Fresno and in aquifers in Central California, the Coachella Valley and central Arizona.
Six other states that depend on the Colorado River had been willing to give California until 2015 to wean itself from surplus shipments, but only if a proposed sale of water from Imperial Valley farms to semi-arid San Diego County was approved by New Year's Eve.
But the Imperial-San Diego sale fell apart when Imperial added last-minute conditions that MWD and Coachella officials found too costly and complex.
As early as next week the MWD plans to shut down some pumps taking water from the river.
Beyond the immediate relief provided by storage, the MWD is banking on several strategies for the long term:
* Possible water transfers from farmers in Northern California. Fourteen water districts have already shown interest in one-year contracts.
* An agreement with farmers in the Palo Verde Valley, along the Colorado River around Blythe, to sell water to the MWD.
* Desalination plants run by local districts (with subsidies from the MWD). Los Angeles, Long Beach, the Municipal Water District of Orange County, the San Diego County Water Authority and the West Basin Municipal Water District have submitted plans.
* Increased storage. The MWD board recently moved to buy and store 250,000 acre-feet in an aquifer near Bakersfield as part of an agreement with the Kern Delta Water District. The board also is expanding the MWD's Hayfield aquifer east of Indio to ultimately hold 800,000 acre-feet. The water would be stored during wet years and withdrawn during dry ones.
* Rebates and incentives for water conservation. One program offers rebates to customers buying water-efficient clothes washers.
* A "garden awareness" plan that centers on changing the watering and landscaping habits of Southern California homeowners.
"We're drowning our plants," said Adan Ortega, MWD vice president for external affairs.
Actress Rene Russo, whose credits include "In the Line of Fire," "Get Shorty," "Tin Cup," "Ransom," "The Thomas Crown Affair" and two of the "Lethal Weapon" movies, is starring in an MWD campaign to convince residents to emphasize landscaping with native California plants, which can survive on far less water than imported plants.
In the past, conservation efforts have centered on low-flow shower heads and toilets.
The garden -- where more than half of residential water is used -- is conservation's next frontier.
Just how successful long-term efforts will be in replacing the surplus water is the great unknown of the current dilemma.
To provide a small cushion, MWD officials hope to present an alternative plan to the San Diego-Imperial deal as a way to convince the Department of Interior and the six other states that California deserves at least a partial return of the surplus water shipments.
There are also hopes, particularly in San Diego, of reviving the Imperial deal.
Raley, the Bush administration's point man on Western water issues, said that although it is possible an MWD plan could result in the surplus being restored, it would take consultation with the six other states.
That could lead to negotiations between the states and the federal government, which, in the past, has been a lengthy process.
"It's highly unlikely that a round of conference calls would be sufficient for us to feel comfortable," Raley said. "Even in this age of electronics, we like to sit down and look our partners in the eye."