With every passing day of blue skies, water experts are growing more and more pessimistic that the state can avoid an unprecedented third year of drought that would lead to strict water rationing.

"After the dry January, a lot of my optimism faded," said Bob Vasconcellos, resources and planning manager for the San Francisco Water Department."I'm preparing for another year of this. January is normally the wettest month in most areas. If you don't get the rain in January, your chances (of recovery) are pretty slim."

As of Feb. 1, statewide precipitation for the winter was 35 percent below average, runoff was 55 percent below normal, and reservoirs were only about 40 percent full. With each additional dry week, the chances for recovery grow more slim.

Weekend skiers find the mountains covered with a powdery snow. Shrunken reservoirs reveal bare terraces of sand; rivers run in ever-smaller channels through bone-dry rock beds. Forests are spotted orange-red with dying trees, and anxious farmers watch their tractors kick up dust where there should be mud.

Unless California gets significant precipitation in the next few weeks, officials say, much of the state will suffer hardships rivaling those of the 1976-77 drought, when the state economy lost $2.4 billion. The only area that will probably escape the most stringent rationing is Southern California.

"The worst case would put us back where we were in '77, the last big drought," said Gayle Montgomery, spokesman for the East Bay Municipal Utility District in Oakland.

"That means loss of landscaping, pretty severe cutbacks in all ways . . . It is no a pleasant thing to go through."

The East Bay district, like the San Francisco Water Department across the bay, implemented 25 percent mandatory water rationing last year. With an eye on their shrinking Sierra Nevada reservoirs, both agencies are drafting further cutbacks.

They are not alone. Depending on the severity of a continued drought, a survey by the Department of Water Resources of 112 agencies found 60 to 76 plan mandatory rationing, up from 27 agencies in 1988.