Photos from the Vault

Remembering the drought-ending Miracle March of 1991

San Luis Obispo County Lake levels in a April 1, 1991 graphic.
San Luis Obispo County Lake levels in a April 1, 1991 graphic.

The hills were brown and brittle in late winter.

Lake levels had shriveled throughout San Luis Obispo County during the drought of 1986-1991.

Santa Margarita Lake, the primary water source for San Luis Obispo, CMC and Camp San Luis Obispo, was near dead-pool level, below intake pipes.

San Luis Obispo was pumping groundwater, and land near Los Osos Valley Road subsided. Wind whistled through auto dealership windows that had fallen out of alignment.

Drought-related businesses sprouted from the dust.

One entrepreneur sprayed green food coloring on brown lawns.

Another installed tank systems to keep lawns green with laundry water.

San Luis Obispo offered rebates to install low-flow fixtures. The city was not able to reclaim irrigation water from the sewer treatment plant at the time because of poor quality.

In addition it had not built a pipeline to Nacimento Lake, and voters in the city would refuse water from yet-to-be-built State Water Project.

It was so bad that Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo were looking into building an expensive desalination plant to provide drinking water from the ocean.

And then things changed.

Former city editor and reporter Larry Mauter wrote about the "March Miracle" in the April 1, 1991, Telegram-Tribune:

County drinks in March miracle

March, known more for winds and the start of fog on the coast, will be remembered this year for the "miracle" rains.

On the final day of February — on the heels of the season's first good soaking — rainfall in San Luis Obispo measured just 6.24 inches. The entire Central Coast was in its fifth year of drought.

A soggy month later, hills are green, reservoirs are filling and rainfall in San Luis Obispo totals 17.47 inches.

March rainfall of 11.08 inches in San Luis Obispo made it the third wettest March on record. Santa Margarita, which started the month with county supervisors slapping an emergency ban on outside watering, has now received 24.73 inches for the season.

Three towns in the county have either slowed drought-related actions or will soon consider lifting restrictions on water use.

Up on Atascadero Road, near Morro Bay, Rachel Parker's steer is munching grass produced by what she termed "miracle" rains. The bovine had been subsisting on a flake of hay a day.

"The steer, I can tell you, is very glad because he was on bare ration," said Parker, whose home borders Morro Creek.

"We're cheered to see it (the creek) roar under the bridge and flowing into the ocean," she said.

Further north, former county Supervisor Bill Coy is crediting the month's rain with recharging his Cayucos orchard wells for the first time in four years.

"I'm dancing on my toes. The water situation was so grim," said Coy. "This March and this rain is the best thing I have ever seen."

Coy uses drip irrigation of 40 acres of his orchard, half in avocados and half in Valencia oranges.

"I never stopped irrigating for a year and a half," Coy said Friday. "This is just beautiful. I'll never cuss the rains again."

March's greening of the hills, normally a November happening, has brightened spirits of people in the county, according to one woman who should know.

Carol Dawn, a registered nurse and certified massage therapist, has been working at the Stress Reduction Center in San Luis Obispo for the past six years.

The greening of the landscape has buoyed folks, she said.

"It picks up people's spirits and makes them feel they are ready for spring," said Dawn. "It's very encouraging when we see green on the hills. ... Green is a healing color because it represents the vitality of life, a new beginning."

San Luis Obispo's City Administrator John Dunn cautioned, however, that the city must guard its optimism following the wet month.

"My attitude is really two-fold. It's elated for the present and continuing concern for the future," Dunn said Friday. "We don't want to have the community go through this 'Perils of Pauline' circumstance again."

He said the City Council is now faced with "dozens of decisions to be made in the weeks and months ahead."

Paramount among them is whether the city will ease its stringent rationing rules. That issue will be discussed Wednesday, said Dunn, with a council decision to be made April 16.

"All of us are elated with our water supply situation compared to three weeks ago," Dunn said. Yet, "the city still has a real concern with the long-term water supply."

It's almost a certainty that lawns in Santa Margarita will stay green. The first week of March, county supervisors banned outside watering there and also said there would be no new connections to the town's county operated water works.

The outside watering ban is expected to be lifted Tuesday by supervisors, though the hookup ban will remain until a new deep well is drilled.

Ironically, rain has held up work on that well, said County Engineer Clint Milne.

"The problem, of course, is it's as muddy as can be," said Milne.

Rains recharging wells on the North Coast spared Cambria residents from a rationing program that would have limited residents to 50 gallons a day. In Morro Bay, the City Council decided not to proceed with plans to join San Luis Obispo in a plant to desalt ocean water. Morro Bay is moving ahead with its own plant, expected to be pumping fresh water to city residents sometime in July.

Puddles from that rain won't last long, according to Gary Ryan of the National Weather Service in Santa Maria. His forecast said showers would end by late morning and the rest of the week will be dry.

The forecast calls for increasing clouds Wednesday night and Thursday, however, and variable cloudiness Friday. Rain is not expected to reach further south than Big Sur.