SACRAMENTO (AP) - Californians are being asked to water their lawns less, plant native shrubs and install more-efficient irrigation systems to stave off water shortages and mandatory rationing amid growing worries about a possible long-term drought.
The increasingly urgent call to conserve water comes as state officials said Thursday that the Sierra Nevada snowpack, a key source of the state's water supply, has fallen about one-third below normal levels.
"We need to recognize that we're in a water shortage and begin to act accordingly," state Resources Secretary Mike Chrisman said.
While officials say it's too early to impose rationing, cities and water districts around California are preparing plans for mandatory conservation to deal with a possible drought.
In Southern California, the Metropolitan Water District, which serves 18 million people, recently raised its water rates by 14 percent and has cut deliveries to farmers by nearly a third. It also launched an advertising campaign urging homeowners and businesses to reduce outdoor watering by at least a day.
"We're in a pretty painful water supply picture," said Jeffrey Kightlinger, the district's general manager. "We don't want to institute rationing, but if this continues you will see us take a look at that next year."
Residents of Long Beach aren't allowed to run fountains, and it's illegal for restaurants to serve customers a glass of water unless they ask for it.
New housing and retail developments in Riverside County are on hold because the necessary water supplies cannot be guaranteed.
In the Coachella Valley, which includes the sprawling resort communities around Palm Springs, water managers have proposed a
tiered water pricing system. The idea is to charge customers who
use more than their fair share of water, said Mark Beuhler, assistant general manager of the Coachella Valley Water District, which supplies water to 130 golf courses and about 100,000 homes.
"We saw the writing on the wall," Beuhler said. "It is probably the most single effective thing we can do to achieve conservation."
The East Bay Municipal Utility District, which serves 1.3 million customers in Contra Costa and Alameda counties with water from the Mokelumne River watershed, are considering rationing because its water supply has been the worst in 17 years. Its board is scheduled to consider a drought management program on May 13.
"Some of the things that could happen are not using fountains, requiring use of a shut-off nozzle in the hose at your house, or restrictions on when people can water their lawns," said district spokesman Jeff Becerra.
Farmers in Central Valley and cities from the San Francisco Bay Area to San Diego are already coping with significant cutbacks in water deliveries.
Pumping out of the Sacramento San Joaquin Delta - the heart of California's water delivery system - has been scaled back this year to comply with a judge's order to protect a threatened fish species.
The bleak snowpack exacerbates those pumping cuts, water officials and farmers say.
"It's problems stacked on top of other problems," said John Harris, a western Fresno County farmer who isn't farming about a third of his 12,000 acres this year.
Growers in northern San Diego County are stumping citrus and avocado trees due to water shortages. Farmers in Fresno and Kings
counties haven't planted about 200,000 acres of crops, about a third of the land irrigated by Westlands Water District.
San Francisco Public Utilities Commission will continue to ask customers to voluntarily cut back on usage - a tactic that worked well last summer, when use fell 13 percent, said spokesman Tony Winnicker.
"As long as our customers continue to use the same good habits they showed last year, we should be able to get through this year without any cutbacks," Winnicker said.
The outlook is brighter for communities along the central coast, which has had plenty of rain to fill their local reservoirs, said Jeanine Jones, the drought coordinator at the Department of Water Resources.
For the most part, the state has little authority to impose mandatory rationing. That can only be done if the governor declares a statewide drought emergency, something no previous governor has done, Jones said. In California, rationing and conservation decisions are locally driven.
Ellen Hanak, a water expert at the Public Policy Institute of California, said communities should be thinking now about adopting conservation and water pricing programs rather than wait until conditions worsen.
"If you're constantly planning to have no cutbacks during dry times, you're probably spending too much on storage," Hanak said. "There's a balance to be struck."
Associated Press Writer Juliana Barbassa contributed to this
report from San Francisco.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)