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This week, Denver homeowners can water their lawns for the first time in more than six months.
Denver has lifted its ban on lawn watering. However, homeowners will pay a high price if they have big lawns or water too much. Denver's water department has doubled or even tripled surcharges that homeowners in the city and several of its suburbs must pay for exceeding new restrictions on use.
Residents of other communities from Texas to Nevada can expect similar surcharges, tighter limits on water use and bigger fines if they waste water.
Despite spring rain and late-winter snowfalls, including a blizzard in March that buried Denver in its biggest snowfall in 90 years, drought continues to afflict most of the West and parts of the Midwest. The rain and snow weren't enough to make up for up to six years of extremely dry conditions in many Western states.
''Drought is not a total absence of precipitation. It's an accumulation of a deficit,'' says Mark Svoboda, climatologist for the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb.
By that measure, the West is deeply in debt. Last year was Colorado's driest since record-keeping began in 1895. It was the third-driest for Nebraska, Wyoming and Nevada, and the fifth straight year of drought in Montana. In Arizona, studies of growth rings in trees show that 1996-2002 may have been the driest period there in 1,400 years.
The federal Drought Monitor that assesses conditions weekly, continues to map severe to extreme dryness across much of the West. California and the Pacific Northwest have seen relief from waves of spring storms. However, most of the Great Basin of Nevada and Utah and much of the Rockies, Southwest and upper Great Plains remain very dry.
A new path of abnormal dryness covers north Texas and much of Oklahoma. Federal farm officials rate nearly one-third of the Texas winter wheat crop in poor condition. About half the pastures in Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming and Kansas are in similar condition.
This spring, snow in the West's major mountain ranges will melt and flow into reservoirs that provide most of the region's drinking water and agricultural irrigation. But many of the reservoirs are so far below normal they won't be replenished this year.
Authorities predict that the Colorado River, which provides water to parts of several states, will get two-thirds of what it gets on average in spring runoff. That's a big improvement over last year, when the runoff was 12 percent of normal. Nonetheless, California, Arizona and Nevada are still expected to draw more deeply on Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Both reservoirs get their water from the river and are at or near historic lows.
In Denver, municipal reservoirs are 45 percent of capacity, despite the 3 feet of snow that the city got in its blizzard in mid-March. ''One storm is not going to pull us out of it,'' said Trina McGuire-Collier of the Denver Water Department. ''It will take at least two to three years of normal precipitation to refill the city's reservoirs.''
Denver residents will be able to water their lawns up to two hours a day, before 10 a.m. and after 6 p.m., twice a week. To enforce limits, more than two dozen Denver ''water cops'' will patrol for violators. A tip line has been set up to report abusers. Fines can reach $1,000 for repeat offenders.
In the nearby suburb of Aurora, 13 water police officers will be on patrol. Aurora was going to outlaw gardens this year. The City Council relented after the blizzard in March. But still taking effect Saturday are prohibitions on new lawns, trees and perennials.
Similar restrictions elsewhere include:
* In Wyoming, Laramie voted last week to impose water surcharges. In Cheyenne, lawn watering in May and June will be limited to two hours twice a week. Reservoirs across the state remain below average.
* In Utah, Salt Lake City increased water rates an average of 13 percent and voted to penalize heavier users in summer. State officials say 25 percent less water will be available this year for farm irrigation.
* In New Mexico, Santa Fe adopted stiff surcharges.
* In Texas, El Paso has restricted outdoor watering to one day a week, and no watering from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
* In Nevada, Las Vegas has set separate watering days for homes and gambling resorts. Water limits due next year may force many of the area's more than 65 golf courses to remove some turf or let fairways go brown.
* In Nebraska, the state's largest reservoir, Lake McConaughy, is expected to peak this week at half its capacity.
* In Montana and North and South Dakota, drought has exposed Indian graves and other sacred and historic sites along the receding shores of Missouri River reservoirs. A federal historic preservation council called this month for immediate action to protect the sites, including places visited by the Lewis and Clark expedition two centuries ago, from looting, vandalism and erosion.