With California in the fifth year of a severe drought and water rationing imposed in the populous southern part of the state, many officials are taking a closer look at desalination - turning salty water of the vast Pacific Ocean into a supply of fresh water.

Clearly, the technology already exists and is in use in many places. Desalination plants in Saudi Arabia were mentioned in news reports about the huge oil spill caused by Iraq in the Persian Gulf war. Some companies in the desalination business already are based in California.So what's keeping the state from using the ocean as a water source? One drawback is the high cost, although that becomes less important when measured against the problems created by the lack of sufficient water. Given the thirsty alternative, small scale desalination plants are popping up along the California coast.

Santa Barbara is putting up a temporary plant, but the price is expected to be $1,900 an acre-foot. By contract, California's massive Metropolitan Water District sells water to Southern California at $230 an acre-foot.

Another drawback is the fact that desalination plants use an enormous amount of energy. That can lead to a dilemma - a water shortage or an energy shortage, take your pick.

Cities are resorting to temporary plants to avoid the long delays in getting environmental impact approvals. California's Metropolitan Water District is looking at a possible $1.5 billion plant to be built in nearby Mexico that would produce 100 million gallons of fresh water a day.

Utahns ought to take a serious interest in the California drought because a dry California could be casting covetous eyes on the division of water rights in the Colorado River. Last month, Interior Secretary Manual Lujan suggested to Colorado legislators that Western states might share water with dry California.

Colorado has begun to do so with some of its unused water, but that could set an uneasy precedent. California has mighty political clout and some are fearful that power might be used to get a larger portion of the water rights it shares under federal law with Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada.

The Colorado River Compact was signed in 1922 before California's subsequent population boom. The agreement gave California 4.4 million acre feet; Colorado, 3 million; Arizona, 2.9 million; Utah, 1.4 million; Wyoming, 840,000; New Mexico, 435,000, and Nevada, 300,000.

Utahns need to encourage California to look at the nearby Pacific Ocean as a water supply instead of the Colorado River.