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Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
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One stormy winter

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

CLOUDY WITH RAIN likely. How many times was that forecast posted this winter?

It made for a gloomy, damp season, but California is emerging from one of its best winters on record. The results are a heavy Sierra snowpack and brimming reservoirs, products of some of the wettest months on record. And because the storms were spaced apart, there was little flood damage that usually goes with above-average downpour totals.

There are other benefits. Farmers, fish and wildlife may all get enough water to avoid feuds over allotments and dam diversions. Hydropower, which produces up to a quarter of the state's energy needs, should be in good shape.

Also, the state already looks great. Green hillsides will stay that way longer. From Lake Tahoe down to the smallest pond, nature's pools should be bluer than ever, thanks to abundant runoff. Millions of butterflies are fluttering across fields and gardens, thanks to fresh undergrowth.

It is the opposite story north of California in Oregon and Washington, where rain is a way of life. That region's drought will continue. A shortage of runoff will mean less water for Klamath River basin farmers in Oregon and downstream flows needed to support salmon runs in California.

The oddities of wet weather beg for an explanation. Los Angeles had more rain than Seattle. A tornado ripped up roofs in South San Francisco, one of a record number setting down across the state this year. The ultimate indicator of sufficient rainfall: the ever-thirsty MWD, the major water agency in Southern California, canceled contracts for Northern California water.

Scientists note that the warm water currents of El Niño shifted, bringing a track of storms farther south into California. The damp weather could be a portent of what will come if global warming takes hold. Dry, golden brown California may turn green and lush.

Or this past winter could be a one-time show, a chance to buy time and plan for thriftier water use in arid years. In the meantime, it's time to enjoy the end of a very wet winter.
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