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California's Drought Decisions

CALIFORNIANS grow up acutely aware of their state's natural distinctions - its seacoast, its redwoods, its mountains, and, not least, its aridity. Most of this magnet for humanity - one out of five of the state's 30 million people arrived there since 1980 - is essentially desert made to bloom. The blooming has grown difficult over the last four years because of persistent drought. With the drought stretching into its fifth year now, state and federal officials are confronting the excruciating dilemma of deciding who gets how much of a dwindling supply of water. Tough choices have already been made. The state-run California Water Project recently stopped its delivery of water to farmers in the agriculturally prolific Central Valley. The federal Central Valley Project is considering reducing its deliveries by as much as 75 percent.

Cities and towns are faced with harsh restrictions on residential water use. The Metropolitan Water District in southern California has already called for a 31 percent cutback on water use. Many communities have instituted their own conservation programs. But statewide, mandatory water rationing for households would be a new threshold.

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Gov. Pete Wilson may decide whether to cross that threshold, and others, this week when he receives the recommendations of a special drought task force he appointed. Questions of fairness are prickly - who should sacrifice the most, should areas with ample ground water be held to the same strict standards as other areas, what about the different needs of different-sized households?

When it comes to agricultural use, which consumes 85 percent of the state's water supply, how much more can access to water be curtailed before the economic damage becomes severe?

The state's farmers could lose as much as $642 million in revenue this year because of the drought, according to researchers at the University of California at Davis. Not just farmers, but all kinds of businesses that depend on them could be affected. At the same time, food costs to American consumers could rise by over $200 million.

Age-old political battles between rural and urban areas, and between the relatively water-rich north and the perennially parched but heavily populated south, are being aggravated by the drought.

Should what's left of the northern region's river system be dammed and exploited? That's a nightmare to environmentalists but common sense to both agricultural and urban interests. Pressures to take this step will build.

The governor and his director of water resources have troubling choices ahead. A balance has to be struck so that all elements of California's diverse society do their share of cutting back and get a fair share of precious water.

Some good could come of the drought if it forces the state to come to terms, yet again, with a natural-resource issue that will only grow as the number of Californians continues to climb.

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