GOLD BEACH ? It is time to start educating people about conserving water, agreed members of the Curry County Emergency Water and Energy Conservation Task Force at their first meeting Wednesday.

The members stopped short, however, of taking the first steps toward declaring a drought emergency.

The state watermaster for Curry and Coos counties, Lloyd Van Gordon, also joined the meeting to touch bases with the members and explain the severity of the situation to them.

Van Gordon suggested people tap into the website of the Oregon Water Resources Department for updates on the drought and information on ways to conserve water without drastically changing lifestyles. The site is located at Click on ?drought? for information.

Some Oregon counties have already declared drought emergencies, said Van Gordon, including Douglas County. He said Josephine County would soon follow.

That could benefit Curry County. Van Gordon said having adjacent counties with formal declarations would give Curry access to federal funds. It would have to make its own declaration to get state funds, however.

?I?m advising you to do that,? said Van Gordon. ?I see by the end of the summer a serious problem. Stream flows are pathetic and dropping like a stone.?

He said the South Coast is currently ?staggering along week to week without any big emergency.?

Curry and Coos counties have the lowest readings in the state on the Surface Water Availability Index, said Van Gordon, as well as on the more complex Palmer Index.

?It?s gotten progressively worse,? he said, with rainfall since the fall at only 50-55 percent of normal. Worse, he said, rainfall since Jan. 1 has been 46-47 percent of normal.

Van Gordon said that last year, a normal year, instream flow in the Chetco River was less than 80 cubic feet a second in September and October.

He said flow is currently half of average, so without heavy summer rain, flow could be down to 30-40 cubic feet this fall.

?We?ve been measuring on the South Coast this week,? said Van Gordon. ?Everything is half of what it should be.?

He said the most meaningful comparison is with 1976-77, the worst drought year on the South Coast since the 1930s.

?We?re behind that,? he said.

Van Gordon said rain was not heavy enough in the winter and spring to put water into the ground table. Rainfall was less than 4 inches a month in the winter.

April was the wettest month, and May rains were sufficient to kick the streamflow in the Chetco up to normal for two days.

Recent rains may help keep plants green for another two or three weeks, he said, but were too light to add to stream flows.

Van Gordon said there are other water uses in the Chetco from seniority to municipal uses. If there is too little water in the river for people at some point, the city and water districts can ask Van Gordon to regulate the river for human uses.

Municipalities, in return, would have to restrict water use. Van Gordon said without a drought declaration, he can?t give humans priority over other seniority uses.

Commissioner Lucie La Bont, who formed the task force, urged the group to consider having Curry County issue a declaration of drought.

Van Gordon said he was concerned with cranberry growers in the north county, who will be using large quantities of water in the fall for harvest, just when flows are lowest.

He said they may need state and federal emergency funding, as would people whose wells dry up. He invited those with problems to call his office in Coquille at (541) 396-3121, ext. 254.

Patty Clark, utilities clerk with the City of Port Orford, said the city will take steps to discourage watering this year, and could put a cap on it if necessary.

La Bont said that city has real problems. She said Port Orford?s watershed has been logged off, and cannot retain as much water. The secondary water source at Garrison Lake is now saltwater.

La Bont said the county may be able to help Port Orford buy its watershed with federal Title 3 funds. She said the city council has also approved an application for a grant to conduct a comprehensive water plan.

Van Gordon said a declaration of a drought emergency could help the city obtain funding to develop its water system.

Brookings City Manager Leroy Blodgett was concerned, however, that a county emergency declaration would force other cities to conserve water, even if they are experiencing no problems.

Gold Beach Mayor Karl Popoff, for example, said his city is doing fine at this point and has no conservation plan now. He said a mayor?s proclamation has been prepared and will be issued if necessary.

Peter Aspinwall, from the Lower Rogue Watershed Council, said low stream flows cause disease outbreaks in fish.

He said the Army Corps of Engineers would cut back on Rogue River flows as soon as they saw fish dying, so that water could be saved for fall salmon runs. He said the Rogue is already at August levels.

Van Gordon said other cities would have to conserve only if they asked him to regulate for human uses over seniority uses.

?Nothing is mandated from the state until you ask me to regulate for you,? he said.

Blodgett said Brookings? engineers will present their water and energy plans next week. The city council will discuss and ?tweak? the plan before adopting it.

He said there is a general consensus at the city that water withdrawals shouldn?t impact the river fishery.

If water can?t be pumped from the aquifer fast enough to satisfy needs, the city will work to educate people, he said.

?I hope we don?t have to make it mandatory,? he said of water conservation.

Blodgett said the city is looking at other sources of water and ways to store it.

?My concern is if (a drought) happens next year too,? he said. ?I think we will do OK this year.?

La Bont said the expansion of the Brookings Urban Growth Boundary could also be a problem. She urged the city and Harbor water districts to work together on that.

La Bont said, ?Should we look at declaring a drought?? She also suggested issuing press releases to educate the public.

Blodgett said it would be worth looking at the pros and cons of a drought declaration, but he felt discussing it openly would be ?more of a scare tactic.?

?We don?t want to cause fear in the community of running out of water since we don?t know that will happen,? he said.

Citizen member Tresa Johnson said, ?People need to know as much as possible.?

Larry Loveless, from the Harbor Water District, agreed with Blodgett. ?We need to look into emergency measures, but educate to conserve.?

Blodgett said he favored voluntary conservation for the benefit of the fish and streams.

?That makes a lot of sense,? said Van Gordon.

Loveless felt 90 percent of people would be willing to cut back. He said mobile home parks could be a big problem.

?If they don?t have individual meters,? he said, ?they don?t care.?

He said Harbor Water recently spent three hours in one park and found five or six major leaks.

He said Harbor Water has a free leak-detection program, and has also given out low-flow showerheads. The district?s water master plan was written by hydrologist Steve Donovan.

Van Gordon said, ?It doesn?t take much to leak 1,000 gallons a month. He remembered finding a huge leak in Nevada that gave no surface clues at all.

La Bont said well owners should think about leaks too, because wells affect river flows.

Gilbert Zepeda, from the U.S. Forest Service, said some of its recreational facilities have wells. He said the Forest Service would stay in contact with the watershed councils to make sure water quality was not impacted.

Van Gordon said a lot of wells in Curry County are illegal. He said many are actually just taking surface water, and those are the ones most likely to dry up.

Many wells are contaminated from surface water. ?A lot of people are drinking unsafe water,? he said.

Less than half of the wells on the South Coast are legally logged, Van Gordon said. Many are exempt because they are less than 10 feet deep, and many are not sealed from surface water.

?Most country people are living off water resources that are very tenuous,? he said. He had calls in March about wells already going dry.

Country people will come to cities to look for water if their wells go dry, he said. The cities should consider setting up water depots.

Blodgett said he used to live in a place with a coin-operated water depot. There is political pressure to shut depots down when city water users have to cut back.

La Bont wondered if fire districts could identify emergency sources of water.

Mike Murphy, the county?s emergency services coordinator, said because of liability issues, only water from treated sources could be used.

Van Gordon said, ?You would need a water right too. You can?t just take water. Firefighting is an exempt use.?

La Bont said the county will look into the pros and cons of declaring a drought emergency, specifically, what money is available and how the declaration would affect cities.

She said the county is already finding ways to cut down on watering on its properties. She would hate to see the courthouse lawn turn brown, but the county will do what is necessary.

She said the county would also issue press releases to heighten awareness. She urged cities and water districts that do not have leak detection programs to start them.

Task force members will look into preparing a list of resources that people could access if they run into water problems, and how to distribute those lists.

The task force will meet again at 10 a.m. July 6 in the commissioners? hearing room in the courthouse annex.