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This drought could turn Golden State's economy brown
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Mellow is yellow.

That was the battle cry in Marin County during the last drought that brought California to its knees in 1987-92.

Parched reservoirs with cracked soil was the backdrop for the plea from water districts in many parts of the state not to flush toilets unless absolutely necessary.

The California Legislature rushed laws into place that required new toilets to use 1.6 gallons per flush as opposed to 3.5 gallons. People with older toilets were encouraged to place bricks or fill plastic milk cartons up with water to put in toilet tanks. Toilets, after all, accounted for 40 percent of all indoor water usage in typical households.

Low-flow shower heads became the rage. Cities were distributing free shower flow restrictions as well as plastic bottles for toilet tanks by the truckloads. It was serious stuff.

People were collecting laundry water in 55-gallon drums and saving it to use where they could on ornamental plants. Drip irrigation became part of the vocabulary. Yellow and brown lawns were common.

And in the middle of the drought - which impacted Northern California much worse than the south state due to water contract commitment - was the infamous CBS News interview with a Mission Viejo homeowner who was bitterly complaining about a state order to stop filling a series of manmade lakes in the new high-end community. The homeowner struck a raw nerve north of the Tehachapi Mountains with his bold declaration that he didn't understand why Southern California had to suffer just because the north state hadn't developed their own water system.

The comment went right to the heart of California's water problem - ignorance. It also touched off north versus south infighting again even though the truth is neither can exist without the other. The north has the water resources and the south has the money to develop it.

A drought this time promises to be much worse than the 1987-92 or the 1976-77 events. It has less to do with the fact this state hasn't added water storage facilities of any consequence in the past 40 years despite adding well over 10 million new residents than it does with a court order protecting the Delta Smelt.

In a nutshell, less water is going south these days into the California Aqueduct that serves as the primary Los Angeles/Southern California lifeline via the Tracy pumps as a court has put in place an order to keep more water in the Delta to improve the habitat for fish.

That means the pain this time around will be widespread.

But even so, there is no reason for anyone in Ceres to be smug even if we dodge a supply problem this year thanks to the foresight of leaders of both the Turlock Irrigation District and the City of Ceres.

The San Joaquin Valley water table has dropped substantially in the last 100 years due to overdrafting. Although the rate of the drop is slowing, hydrologists agree it is just a matter of time before we start sucking it dry since it takes years - or decades - to replace a single year's use in underground aquifers depending upon weather cycles.

And like most of California, we depend on imported water. Yes, we still have wells but as mercury standards tighten and overdrafting continues plus the specter of saltwater intrusion such as Tracy is combating from the Delta especially during dry water years, it is only a matter of time before we may find ourselves dependent on water that comes from snow that falls in the Stanislaus River watershed.

Mother Nature left to her own devices would turn the entire Central Valley into a marshland in the winter and during spring snow melts as well into an arid desert in the summer. As for Southern California, there is no way it could support its population without imported water from the north state, Owens Valley, and the Colorado River.

Even San Francisco - where residents like to think of themselves as cutting edge eco-folks - uses imported water taken from the destruction of John Muir's beloved Hetch Hetchy Valley.

Given the importance of water to California - and civilizations as a whole - one would hope that a serious classroom endeavor would be put in place at all levels to educate future California consumers and leaders that water just doesn't come from a faucet.

If not, producing generation after generation of Californians who are ignorant about water realities in this state will ultimately turn the Golden State and its economy brown.

To contact Dennis Wyatt, e-mail