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<i>"Hopefully, it's going to rain. If it doesn't, we're going to have to act in a very strenuous way in every part of the state ..."

-#8212; Gov. Jerry Brown</i>

Here in California, we're busy praying for the wettest February in history. Without a deluge (or two or three or four), we're going to be in a world of trouble.

Just ask the 17 rural counties that face severe water shortages within four months.

Just ask the residents of Healdsburg and Cloverdale. Both were listed last week among 17 California cities that might run out of water.

Just ask the residents of the Ukiah Valley, where Lake Mendocino could go dry.

Just ask the dairy ranchers in Two Rock Valley, or the grape growers in the Alexander Valley. Without water for livestock, irrigation and frost protection, they face disastrous losses.

"People don't realize how bad this really is," Two Rock dairy rancher Don DeBernardi told Staff Writer Robert Digitale.

Without heavy rains, all of us will share in the hardships, economic losses and inconveniences associated with the driest 13 months in the recorded history of the North Coast.

Water shortages affect agriculture and business, recreation and tourism. Water shortages mean shorter showers, front lawns left to die and changes in bathroom etiquette. "Don't flush more often than you need to," Gov. Jerry Brown said.

We find ourselves on a new and unfamiliar landscape -#8212; an arid place where the prospect of a half-inch of rain in January becomes Page One news. (In keeping with the season, the rainfall turned out to be far less than predicted.)

Brown is talking about mandatory rationing and about water transfers from the "more privileged" regions of the state to those that are running out of water.

For now, cities in Sonoma County are scrambling to limit the damage by asking for voluntary reductions in water consumption. If it doesn't rain, these measures won't solve the problem, but they will delay the worst impacts.

There is an uncomfortable reality here. Having arrived at this moment in time, we don't have many good options. Few among us planned and prepared for a year in which there was virtually no rainfall.

And there is this: No one wants to think about what it would mean if this dry weather is the new normal for California.

What we know is that climate change is creating new extremes of weather all over the world.

Under the circumstances, it would seem prudent to spend more time and energy identifying better ways to manage water resources -#8212; a category that includes both fresh water and recycled water.

Government will play a significant role in all this, but individuals and industries also must acknowledge their responsibility to prepare for the future.

Hindsight is easy, but it's worth noting that the city of Santa Rosa once proposed a pipeline carrying recycled water from the regional treatment plant to the ranches of the Two Rock Valley. Opposition to a reservoir needed to store the water sank the project.

At various times, efforts have been made to persuade more grape growers to construct reservoirs and use recycled water for irrigation, but the proposals never gained momentum.

There was the unspoken belief that there would always be enough water.

After a January in which Santa Rosa recorded less than a tenth of an inch of rain and average high temperatures were almost 11 degrees above normal, maybe it's time to reconsider old assumptions. Going forward, the solutions don't require a degree in rocket science so much as they require cooperation and foresight:

-#8226; Communities, business, farmers, families -#8212; all of us -#8212; need to expand water conservation efforts that remain the least expensive way to generate additional capacity.

-#8226; Public agencies, businesses and farmers need to pursue new opportunities to use recycled water for irrigation.

-#8226; Public agencies need to explore opportunities associated with aquifer storage and in a few cases, new dams and reservoirs to store water.

-#8226; Property owners need to educate themselves about the importance of managing groundwater resources. Protecting private property rights won't mean much when the well goes dry.

"Our groundwater supply is very, very low, and a lot of wells have been extended over the past year," Agriculture Commissioner Tony Linegar, told Staff Writer Cathy Bussewitz. "I'm as concerned really almost about our groundwater situation as surface water, because it's equally as bad."

Once upon a time, Sonoma County voters were closely divided about whether to construct Warm Springs Dam. Then came the drought of 1976-77. Today, we would not want to imagine what life would be like for 600,000 North Bay residents without the water stored behind that dam.

This year's drought now offers up its own teaching moment -#8212; underscored by what scientists have told us in recent years about the impacts of climate change.

In government, business, agriculture and in our private lives, we need to start imagining how we make sure there is always enough water to go around.

We also need to stop pretending that water will always be abundant.

<i>Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.</i>

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