Late winter in year three of an extended drought and the local picture isn't pretty.
Urban hillsides retain a summer pallor. Eucalyptus trees are turning brown. Rings around Southern California reservoirs are signs of a water supply that's dropping fast. Prized underground aquifers -- though not visible -- are shrinking from overpumping and approaching record lows.
And once again, there's no rain in the forecast.
Less than 1 percent of the capacity of the 14 dams spread across Los Angeles County is available for release, according to data from the Department of Public Works. Of the 183,000 acre-feet possible, the county has about 759 acre-feet it can release to replenish sinking aquifers -- a 22-year low. (One acre foot of water is enough to supply two families in Southern California for a year.)
Seven of those reservoirs are bone dry, and one, Santa Anita Dam, is barely holding on to a green pool of shallow water. The big six: San Gabriel, Morris, Puddingstone, Cogswell, Big Tujunga and Pacoima maintain minimum volumes so as not to damage pipes and valves, said Kerjon Lee, spokesman for the county department.
"I've been here for 20 years and for mid-February, I've not seen it lower," said Adam Walden, civil engineer with the water resources division of the county DPW.
The elaborate system of dams, creeks, rivers and flood control channels that provide water to a semi-arid region are hunkered down in ready mode, waiting to capture any moisture that falls from the skies.
"I'm asked to give reports about the water levels and a lot of people got sick of hearing me give bad news," said Steve Johnson, vice president of Stetson Engineers in West Covina, who has been studying water supplies in Southern California for three decades.
"I'll tell them, when the water comes, we have plenty of places to put it right now," he said, pointing to underground aquifers from the coast to the inland valleys and their above-ground cousins, mountain reservoirs. "They are all waiting for water right now."
So far, L.A. County has spread just 6,900 acre-feet of stormwater since October to replenish drawn wells, he said, as compared to 75,000 acre-feet in an average year. The county has had to use Northern California water to help replenish the aquifers, he said.
The watershed remains so dry, any rain so far sinks into the soil, Walden said. "When it rains, not very much of it is running into our reservoirs. For our water supply, that is not a good thing."
But there is some actual good news.
Castaic Lake and Pyramid Lake in the Grapevine area of Southern California are at 84 percent and 99 percent capacity, respectively. These two, part of the state's reservoir system, are not stream-fed but are filled with water from Northern California via pipelines and aqueducts.
Likewise, the Diamond Valley Reservoir in Perris, run by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, is at 72 percent capacity. These reservoirs are filled or nearly filled with water that will feed thirsty Southern California for at least a year or more at pre-drought volumes. They compare favorably to stream-fed or Delta-dependent reservoirs in Northern California, including the San Luis Reservoir at 30 percent capacity on Wednesday and Lake Oroville at 38 percent capacity.
"As we roll into the drought, we are pretty well prepared for it," said Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the MWD, an agency that supplies water to 19 million people from Ventura County to the Mexican border.
After the 1991 drought, the MWD spent $3.5 billion on new reservoirs and more groundwater storage. The MWD can store 6 million acre-feet of water now, a twentyfold increase in its storage capacity in about 20 years, Kightlinger said during a panel on water and the drought in Los Angeles last week .
On the other hand, about 17 small hamlets, including the town of Willits, may have to truck in their water in the next few months if the drought persists, he said. Central Valley farmers who have not locked in water transfers may see crops die on the vine. Some may not plant at all.
Kightlinger predicted more than 1 million acres will be fallowed this year. "That is stunning," he said.
Here in urban Southern California, shoppers may pay higher prices for vegetables, fruits and nuts, said Ann Chan, deputy secretary for climate and energy at the California Natural Resources Agency.
But most water managers agree that Southern Californians will not see water rationing this year. Just when the area shifts into conservation mode is anyone's guess.
When asked why more people or agencies aren't scared of running out of water, Celeste Cantu, general manager of the Riverside-based Santa Ana Watershed Project Association with members from Chino to Yucaipa, said this is the lull before the storm.
"There is plenty to freak out about. We are only one year away from being in dire straits. Yeah, those reservoirs look really full, but we have to replenish them constantly and with Northern California snowmelt," Cantu said.
Meanwhile, Southern California water engineers are rolling out contingency plans that run the gamut from preaching water conservation to switching to Colorado River water, a source that may be awakening from a previous decade-long dry spell because of recent plentiful snowfall.
The second bit of good news comes from the Upper Colorado River Basin, which was at 112 percent snowpack as of Feb. 9, according to the MWD. While the snow and rain last week in Northern California helped increase supplies there, the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada is 28 percent of normal.
Relying on the Colorado River remains a contingency plan, Johnson said. Many water retail agencies can switch to Colorado River water and refrain from overpumping from one of the area's basins, which include the Central and West Basin in southeast L.A. County, the San Fernando Valley basin, the Raymond Basin in the Pasadena-foothill area and the Santa Ana River Watershed, which provides water to 6 million people in San Bernardino, Riverside and Orange counties and a sliver of eastern L.A. County.
"Of course there is a cost factor. It costs more to use (Colorado River water purchased from the MWD) rather than pump from their own wells," Johnson said. That may mean the higher cost of imported water will get passed on to consumers.
A fact not lost on Joe Cuevas, 50, a Norwalk resident who was hiking in the Angeles National Forest on Thursday, looking at the dry brush in Big Santa Anita Canyon below Santa Anita Dam.
"To me? It means I'll have to pay a higher water bill," he said.
Hikers, cabin owners and naturalists from the Santa Monica Mountains to Mount Baldy don't need to check reservoir levels to know this drought is serious.
They look at the trees.
"There's a eucalyptus tree at the edge of Chantry Flat parking lot. Its leaves are starting to dry up. That is really stressed," said Glen Owens, founder of the Big Santa Anita Canyon Historical Society and cabin owner in the Angeles National Forest.
"It is pretty sad whenever you get back-to-back drought years."