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1976 California drought

1976 California drought

July 2, 1976: Dan Lemons, manager of Ranchita Oaks Ranch and Vineyards northeast of Paso Robles runs dirt through his fingers from a field too parched by the California drought to grow crops. In the background purebred cattle feed on stubble.

Staff writer Robert A. Jones reported in the July 6, 1976, Los Angeles Times:

California’s drought — now regarded as the worst in half a century — has begun to produce critical shortage that will leave some communities without drinking water, force some farmers to abandon irrigated fields, and, in a few cases, leave firemen without water reserves to fight wildland fires.

The drought, in effect, has become a severe test for this state’s vast water supply system, and some water officials now believe the system is not withstanding the test as well as they had expected.

In his Sacramento office, Ronald B. Robie, director of the Department of Water Resources, fingered a copy of “The California Drought — 1976,” and wondered aloud about the state’s water future.

“Our system was designed for a seven-year dry cycle,” he said. “At least, that was the theory. The fact is, I don’t believe we could live up to the theory. After one year of drought, the situation is already tight, very tight.”

“The California Drought,” a study prepared by Robie’s agency, lists many of the increasing problems caused by a year in which only 40% of the normal precipitation fell on California.

From the study, and from interviews with state and local officials, a complex picture of this year’s drought emerges. Its effect will be severe on some while others will go untouched. Here are some major conclusions:

—Small towns will be hurt far more severely than large cities. In some cases, even extreme water conservation is not going to save a few towns in the Sierra foothills and coastal areas from the necessity of importing water in trucks or through temporary pipelines. Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, on the either hand, will remain virtually untouched.

One of the ironies of the drought is the abundance of water in the near-desert of Southern California — now fed by supplies from the Colorado River, Owens Valley, and the state Water Project — while normally water-rich areas in the Sierras fight for every gallon.

—As with large cities, major irrigation projects such as the state Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project will fare well this year, delivering all their contracted water. But some smaller systems will fail in their commitments, forcing farmers to change crops, reduce acreage, or abandon fields doomed by the shortage. Such measures will lead to higher agricultural prices in the fall …

The drought lasted through 1977.

In this May 2014 Times report,  “Drought yields only desperation,” writer Diane Marcum and photographer Michael Robinson Chavez document the current drought-caused collapse of the farming community of Huron, California.

These photos by staff photographer Steve Fontanini  were published in the July 6, 1976, Los Angeles Times.

July 2, 1976: Low shoreline shows how Lake Shasta water levels have dropped since the drought hit. View is of marina near the dam. Credit: Steve Fontanini / Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive/UCLA

scott.harrison@latimes.com

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