No surprise: The water forecast for next year looks dry.

The state Department of Water Resources said today it will only deliver 15 percent of the water requested by agencies across the state, setting the stage for widespread water rationing in 2009.

The department, which manages water exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a major drinking water source for San Diego, updates and increases that figure throughout the winter, depending on rain and snowfall. But if the winter is dry, it may not improve, Lester Snow, the department’s director, said during a conference call with reporters today. And if dry conditions persist through 2009, Snow said the state could face “the worst drought in California’s history.”

And that’s why the Metropolitan Water District, the Los Angeles-based wholesaler that provides most of San Diego’s drinking water, plans to consider next month whether to cut its deliveries next year.

Jeff Kightlinger, Metropolitan’s general manager, said his agency is in a “gray area” and is unsure whether it will implement cutbacks immediately or later in 2009. But if the winter is dry, Kightlinger said Metropolitan will “definitely” have cuts by summer. Metropolitan’s board of directors will discuss the issue Nov. 18.

“We are preparing for the very real possibility of water shortages and water rationing throughout southern California,” Kightlinger said.

That’s been expected. The agency had been considering those steps before today’s announcement. Water agencies throughout San Diego County say they’re expecting Metropolitan to make cuts next year. The question is when.

If Metropolitan cuts deliveries to San Diego, residents would have to voluntarily conserve water or face mandatory restrictions on its use. Those could include limiting lawn watering to certain days of the week.

Snow said several factors are responsible for the low allocation from the delta:

  • The steps taken to protect the delta smelt, a tiny endangered fish. A judge’s ruling limits the amount of water that can be pulled through the delta. Without it, water agencies would get 20 percent of their requests right now, not 15 percent. Those protections will increasingly limit deliveries if winter precipitation is average or above normal. Even if precipitation falls, it may not become available because of the ruling.
  • The weather. Last winter was the second dry winter in a row. As a result, the state’s reservoirs sit at about half the level they should be, Snow said. Diamond Valley Lake, one of Metropolitan’s major reservoirs, is about two-thirds full, the result of a steady draw down.
  • Population increases since the 1987-1992 drought has increased demand. “Demand has hardened a bit and increased a bit since those days,” Snow said.

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