Water content in the Sierra Nevada 2007 snowpack, state water officials report, is the lowest they've seen in nearly two decades.

"Pretty dismal" is how one meteorologist with the California Department of Water Resources described the latest snow load.

For ample proof that this is a fair description, look no further than the foothills and nearby regions. It's only late April but the indications of a coming drought are all around us:

? Yosemite's glorious waterfalls normally an attraction throughout the spring peaked weeks ago;

? Sonora Pass, which Caltrans crews usually struggle to have open by Memorial Day, was opened Thursday with ease and Ebbetts Pass is expected to be clear for crossing within two weeks.

? Fears of a nasty fire season, albeit worries fire officials express each spring regardless of snowpack, are rising particularly early this time around.

And especially telling is the fact that water districts around the region are already warning that a drought by summertime is likely. So they're rightfully pushing their customers now for help in the form of basic water conservation steps.

Still, thrifty water use is hardly a priority for most of us just yet. It should be.

Water is one natural resource that Tuolumne and Calaveras county residents have a surprising amount of control over. While water levels, whether at Pinecrest or Pardee, can only be regulated by the likes of PG&E or East Bay MUD, there's plenty that individuals can do when this vital liquid comes through the tap.

Tuolumne County's largest water district now has water-saving measures in effect, and is notifying its 13,000 customers just what voluntary steps to take. Calaveras County Water District is also strongly urging its 12,500 customers to cut back.

These steps range from making sure you water only before noon or after 7 p.m. and only every other day to replacing water-sucking lawns with drought-tolerant plants or, better yet, a rock garden. Getting into the practice of running only full loads in the washing machine and dishwasher will save some 800 gallons a month, water officials say. Covering your pool will spare about 1,000 gallons a month that otherwise would evaporate.

To help in the effort, available for free at the TUD office are low-flow shower heads and toilet leak detection kits. The district also offers $45 rebates to customers who replace an old toilet with a new water-saving model.

Any TUD customer needing further convincing that water sources in and around the house should be conserved needs to also know that, if the district's total water usage is not cut by at least 20 percent through the voluntary steps, water conservation could become mandatory as soon as June. Furthermore, customers would face higher water rates and those who don't cut back on water use will be fined.

Higher rates? Fines?

Being cautious about when you water or do the wash is a lot easier and a lot cheaper.

What's your take on the issue? Write to: letters@uniondemocrat. com.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board Publisher Geoff White, Managing Editor Patty Fuller and senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.