California's drought is in its third year, and visions of a wet winter, fed by warm El Ni? currents in the Pacific, are fading.

"I've got my money on this being an El Wimpo," Bill Patzert, a research scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, told the San Jose Mercury News when the U.S. Climate Prediction Center issued its latest forecast.

If rain isn't in this winter's forecast, Californians desperately need to step up conservation efforts. Even if precipitation returns to historic levels, climate change is expected to affect weather patterns in unpredictable ways, so the state must begin adjusting its water managements plans.

So far, the Golden State is falling short on both challenges.

Residents delivered mixed messages in a USC-Los Angeles Times poll, with 89 percent describing the drought as a crisis or a major problem — and 82 percent saying it was having little or no effect on them.

That attitude is reflected in conservation efforts. Five months after the governor declared an emergency and called for a 20 percent reduction in water usage compared to last year, there are some dry lawns and dusty cars, but a statewide survey released this week found savings of just 5 percent statewide. The Bay Area figure was a measly 2 percent.

The USC-Times poll found strong support for new water storage measures but little interest in paying for them. That should give pause to state legislators debating how many billions of dollars to request in a water bond measure targeted for the November ballot.

In Washington, meanwhile, the House and Senate are preparing to reconcile bills that use the drought as an excuse to waive environmental regulations to benefit Central Valley growers. Such a move wouldn't increase the amount of water available, but it would threaten the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, salmon fisheries that sustain North Coast communities and what little trust exists among the stakeholders who must agree on any long-term water management plan.

The congressional response — driven by House Republicans from the valley and Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer — is especially troubling. Agriculture uses 80 percent of the state's water supply, and the demand keeps growing. Valley growers have added thousands of acres of grapes and almonds over the past two decades, replacing annual crops that can be taken out of production during a drought with vineyards and orchards that must be irrigated to survive.

There was one clear message in the USC-Times poll: Californians are opposed to undermining environmental protections. Almost half would rather reduce water supplies than relax environmental regulations, with 36 percent saying supplies should take precedence.

Indeed, both approaches are important. California must secure its water supply and its environment, its farms and its fisheries.

Though savings so far this year are minimal, Bay Area residents have cut back substantially over time. In 2001, the Sonoma County Water Agency delivered 160 gallons per person per day; today, it delivers 128 gallons. A similar ethic must spread statewide, including agriculture, combined with stepped up management of groundwater and a more efficient, more sustainable allocation of water supplies.