Water experts are having a hard time finding the right words to describe what lies ahead, after recording a dismally dry January in California.
"Scary," "grim," and possible "conservation mandates" are offered up.
Yet it's easy for the experts to sound out a clear warning: This may become, simply, the worst drought California has ever seen.
"Our worst fears appear to be materializing," said Wendy Martin, drought coordinator at the state Department of Water Resources. "It's going to be a huge challenge."
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The bottom line, water officials said, is that right now, everyone must start using less water. The public can expect higher water bills and fines if they don't, because the alternative is a real water shortage – one that is threatening tens of thousands of Valley jobs.
"It's pretty scary," said Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, who has more than three decades in the water-supply business. "The public needs to tighten their belts. You have to rearrange all the molecules in your brain to think about using water differently."
What worries the water gurus is not just a likelihood that 2009 may be a third dry year in a row, but what appears to be the state's dramatically reduced flexibility to respond.
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