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California storms: weighing the costs

Assessing the impact of California's recent stormy weather is a matter of perspective. To shore residents whose homes have been destroyed or severely damaged, it means at best a costly rebuilding process, at worst the end of a dream.

To farmers whose broccoli, lettuce, strawberries, and other fruit and vegetable crops have been inundated by the heavy rains, it means losses totaling some $4 million.

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To consumers in much of the United States it means higher prices for those products in the next few weeks - up to 25 cents a pound higher.

To the California Department of Transportation it means months of costly work restoring highways, mostly on or near the coast, damaged by successive storms since Dec. 1.

To the state's electric utilities, it means a second straight year of enhanced hydropower, enabling them to reduce or at least hold the line on rates.

And to the state Coastal Commission it may mean eventual tightening of recommended precautions in the light of almost unprecedented storm intensities and severe erosion.

Meanwhile, Californians from the Oregon line to the Mexico border wonder whether the unusually wet and stormy weather of the past two years is part of a pattern that will continue. On this question the experts are not much help.

Meteorologists, climatologists, and other scientists can explain how a combination of phenomena produced this winter's string of storms that battered California, but they can only speculate on why some of the ''events'' took place.

Might there be a return to ''normal'' weather? Records, scientists contacted say, indicate it is unlikely that this winter's conditions will be repeated within the next few years. While last year's record-setting precipitation in central and northern California caused much damage, the conditions of 1981-82 were not the same as this winter's. On the other hand no two successive seasons on record have produced as much rain and snow.

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Richard McCarthy of the California Coastal Commission says that the wave height in recent storms and the severity of beach erosion will require reassessment of some standards that affect shore uses and structures. Since early December, continuous beach erosion and undercutting of cliffs has occurred , he explains. The removal of much of the natural barriers protecting beachfront structures accounted for the loss or damage of some 1,600 buildings along the coast. Erosion has been so severe that many beaches will be permanently diminished, says Mr. McCarthy,

Sand has been dispersed so far offshore that the natural restoration process may not take place. And inland damage upstream has reduced the normal deposit of sediment that rebuilds and replenishes beaches.

Under current state law and local codes, property owners who can afford to will be allowed to rebuild, McCarthy points out, and many will. But with natural protection gone or diminished, they may also build seawalls, dikes, or riprap (stones set below the high-tide mark to impede wave action).

Such installations, if not properly planned and built, could thwart the natural beach building process and cause new problems, he warns. One property owner's riprap can result in another's wave-erosion problem.

In some places, such as the Big Sur area and Malibu, portions of scenic state Route 1 have been undermined or even destroyed. The only option may be to ''rebuild seaward'' rather than cut deeper into the hillsides, McCarthy says. This may drastically alter a portion of the coastline.

With the weekend came a letup in the rain and hope for a break in the storm pattern. President Reagan promised quick response to Gov. George Deukmejian's request for disaster aid. A partial assessment of the situation follows:

* More than 4,000 homes and 350 businesses damaged or destroyed by waves and high tides, flooding, and mudslides.

* At least $75 million in public property damage and $98 million in private losses.

* Widespread flooding of newly planted crops in northern California and the San Joaquin Valley.

* A setback in the pollination of fruit trees because the bees could not do their work in the rain. Flooding of more land in the Sacramento Delta, where thousands of productive acres had already been inundated earlier in the season.

* The prospect of high groundwater levels in the valleys later, when the extra-heavy snow pack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains begins to melt, causing further delays in planting and possibile destruction of field crops, fruit trees , and vines.

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