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Western US Tries to Cope With Worst Drought in 100 Years

The Western United States is undergoing a major drought, and a looming water shortage threatens to make conditions worse in coming years. Regional officials are working on a plan to avert a crisis.

Water-hungry Los Angeles is a case in point. Last winter's rainy season was the driest on record in the city. And water supplies from the Colorado River, which provides 17 million residents of Southern California with two-thirds of their water, could be cut by half unless regional officials can work out a plan involving better water-sharing and conservation. They have until the end of the year to do that.

The drought extends along the 2,300 kilometer Colorado River Basin, with varying degrees of severity. Seven U.S. states from California to Wyoming receive allotments of river water, as does northwestern Mexico.

Without access to the river, much of the region would be desert. Wayne Cook, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, came from Utah to California to impress on local officials the severity of the problem. Low rainfall has left Lake Powell and Lake Mead, two reservoirs on the system, at just two-thirds of normal levels.

"It's probably the most serious drought we've had in the last 100 years," said Mr. Cook. "This is our third year of drought on the system and we're having very significant draw-downs in Lake Powell to make our delivery obligations to the lower basin."

States in the lower Colorado River basin include California. With its agriculture and sprawling urban centers, it is the region's water glutton.

Dennis Underwood of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California explains that one way to deal with the drought is to transfer unused water from the large allotment devoted to agriculture.

"We complement that by water conservation we have a very aggressive water conservation effort," said Mr. Underwood. "We're probably one of the lowest per capita users in the United States. We're looking at water recycling. All of these get into being non-hydrologic dependent." That means not being as dependent on water as Californians now are. "In other words, if there's a dry year, you can still get your supplies, meeting your needs, because of conservation, recycling, recovering contaminated ground water," explained Mr. Underwood. "We can do sea-water desalting off the coast to augment our supplies. So we're trying to diversify our supplies and not just be dependent on mother nature."

The California government is providing funds to put a watertight lining along two canals to minimize seepage.

Los Angeles water official Dennis Underwood notes conservation also involves persuading property owners to eliminate grass lawns and use desert plants like cactus in their yards. And he says local official are encouraging the use of low-flow washing machines and toilets. "We're also looking at institutions, like older hotels, that if you're retrofitting some of the plumbing fixtures, showerheads, all of that makes a big difference," he said.

Officials do not blame global warming for the current drought, which they say is simply the result of natural fluctuations. And they say that mother nature may offer some relief. An El Nino weather system, caused by an eastward shift of warm Pacific waters and a resulting change in the jet stream, could bring the southwestern United States some needed rain. But they say the water shortage is a long-term condition and that permanent solutions must be based on conservation, better management, and technologies to draw water from new sources like the ocean.