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Rare Rains Sop Parched Southern California, But Drought Continues

A SERIES of winter storms that left pillowy powder in the Sierra Nevada, ankle-deep water in Los Angeles, and this reporter's ceiling leaking like a congressional panel has eased but not eradicated the five-year drought in California.

Water officials have emerged quickly from their cubicles with hydrology charts in hand to repeat the familiar refrain heard this time of year: No, it's not safe to take long showers again yet. It will take more than one series of storms, and probably more than one wet year, to offset one of the worst droughts in state history.

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Even so, the recent rains and snow are a welcome sight to Californians who have been showering with buckets to catch excess water and farmers who have tended cracked fields instead of wheat and cotton. The precipitation has also allowed ski resorts to ferry patrons to mountaintops to do something other than eat.

"We're happy to get anything we can," says Nathan Kendall of Squaw Valley USA, a ski resort near Lake Tahoe that recently logged its fourth busiest day on record.

In the past two weeks, several feet of snow have fallen in parts of the Sierra Nevada, and Los Angeles has gotten enough rain to push precipitation levels above normal for the first time since 1985.

In a desert kingdom like southern California, however, the key isn't what falls on the ground but what happens hundreds of miles away. More than 70 percent of the city's water comes from watersheds in the eastern Sierra, and even though it has been helped by the recent storms, nature's spigot has still been stingy: The snowpack is only 60 percent of normal.

"We're still not in good shape," says Mindy Berman of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

Overall, the snowpack in the mountains stands at 50 percent of normal. Only one of the seven major reservoirs in the state is at more than 50 percent of capacity and most hover at 20 percent to 40 percent.

"Officially, we are in our sixth year of drought," says Dick Wagner of the state Department of Water Resources. "It usually takes a number of years to get those reservoirs back."

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Few cities are ready to back off from rationing. There is less talk, though, of turning tankers into Evian bottles and shipping water down from Canada. Santa Barbara, north of here, is preceding with its plans to build a spare canteen: It will switch on the nation's largest desalination plant in March.

Residents here, meanwhile, which have seen the return of sunny skies, greeted their first big rains of the season the way they always do, like they are as odd as an eclipse. Traffic stopped. Storm drains plugged. Roofs leaked. News cameras rolled as if it was another Kennedy trial.

Newcomers watch all this commotion with the bewildered look of what James Thurber once called a hunter who has seen nothing but warblers all day.

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