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The Contra Costa Water District keeps a month-by-month graph that charts the average precipitation in its northern Sierra watershed. A wavy line above shows the wettest year on record, and another below shows the driest. Down at the bottom, barely detectable, is the flat line tracking 2013-14.

If it were any lower, it would fall off the page.

"It's been dry," said the district's planning manager, Jeff Quimby. "There's no doubt about that. So far this water year is shaping up to be one of the driest on record."

Dry, in this case, means 3.2 inches of precipitation in the last three months. A year ago, that total exceeded 30. An average year brings 44 inches, so there's a lot of catching up to do.

The drought has left Mount Shasta without its usual mantle of winter snow and Lake Shasta at low levels as shown in this photograph taken near Shasta Dam
The drought has left Mount Shasta without its usual mantle of winter snow and Lake Shasta at low levels as shown in this photograph taken near Shasta Dam in Shasta County on Dec. 31, 2013. (AP Photo/Record Searchlight, Andreas Fuhrmann)

The situation is almost identical for the East Bay Municipal Utility District, even though it harvests water from a different region. Spokeswoman Andrea Pook says its Mokelumne watershed has recorded 4.5 inches -- less than one-third of what it normally expects.

Decades ago, these numbers might have been reason for alarm. The historic drought of 1976-77, which began in similar fashion, devastated farming and recreation industries, produced historic low flows in 22 streams statewide and resulted in mandatory rationing for consumers. The impact was so profound that the Department of Water Resources produced a 238-page report laying the groundwork for reform.

Now?


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"People use water a lot differently than they did in 1977," Quimby said. "We've made significant investments in conservation and we use water more efficiently. We've made investments in recycled water and in offstream storage."

The Los Vaqueros Reservoir southwest of Brentwood stands as testimony to lessons learned. Originally built in the late 1980s with a capacity of 100,000 acre feet, it was enlarged by 60 percent in 2012.

"Before the original reservoir was completed," Quimby said, "we were entirely dependent on the Delta -- whatever water and water quality was available when we needed it."

Los Vaqueros currently has 130,000 acre feet, brimming with water harvested when it was cleanest and most desirable. That enormous reserve -- paid for through increased user fees -- is one reason the Contra Costa district envisions no need this year for rationing.

EBMUD anticipates no rationing in its near future, either. That's largely because consumers have embraced conservation techniques -- high-efficiency showers, low-flow toilets, drought-resistant plants -- that have reduced water demands by one-third of what they were 40 years ago. EBMUD's reservoirs currently stand at 66 percent of capacity, which is nearly normal for this time of year.

"We still have half of the rain year ahead of us," Pook said. "So even though all the news reports say that 2013 was the driest calendar year -- and that's true -- we are concerned about the whole water year. We'll know more in April. By then we'll know if we're in a bad situation for next year."

The lesson from all this is that conservation and planning works. For more tips from EBMUD, visit www.ebmud.com/watersmart. Contra Costa Water customers can sign up for a WaterSaver electronic newsletter a www.ccwater.com/conserve.

There's a reason California droughts aren't as scary as they used to be. Consumers and providers have gotten smarter.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.