There was plenty of sun but not much snow at Phillips Station as staff from the California Department of Water Resources conducted its first snow survey of the season on Friday, Jan. 3.
Taking samples from seven different spots, Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Survey for the Department of Water Resources, reported finding a snow depth of 9.3 inches and 2.3 inches of water content, which is only 20 percent of normal.
On average, the Jan. 1 snowpack water content at Phillips Station should be 12 inches.
“This is not a very promising start to the season,” said Gehrke, who noted that California gets most of its snowpack during the months of December through February, with occasional storms in March.
“We’ve had minimal storm activity this year as a high pressure center built up over the Pacific Northwest has shifted all the storms up into Canada and then on to the East Coast,” he said. “Not to say that things can’t turn around. We’ve seen it before. Snow accumulation is governed by five or six storms and we’re losing quite a few of those. The further we go through the season, the less likely that becomes.”
Gehrke said water rationing has already started in certain jurisdictions because of the prospect of another dry year.
“We need an above average snowpack to get our reservoirs back to where they need to be,” he said. “An Interagency Drought Task Force is meeting today to examine what can be done, who is going to be impacted and what help is out there. The East Coast is being hammered, but if the weather shifted to California, suddenly we’d be back on track. It just depends on where the jet stream is hitting.”
Statewide, manual and electronic readings record the snowpack water content at about 20 percent of average for this time of year.
In a press release, DWR said it estimates it will be able to deliver only 5 percent of the slightly more than four million acre-feet of State Water Project water requested for the calendar year 2014 by the 29 public agencies that collectively supply more than 25 million Californians and nearly a million acres of irrigated farmland.
“While we hope conditions improve, we are fully mobilized to streamline water transfers and take every action possible to ease the effects of dry weather on farms, homes and businesses as we face a possible third consecutive dry year,” said DWR Director Mark Cowin, who urged residents to make water conservation a daily habit.
The snowpack normally provides about a third of the water used in California as it slowly melts into streams and reservoirs in spring and early summer.
Manual readings taken by DWR and scores of cooperating agencies on Friday and on or about the first of each month through May will augment and check the accuracy of real-time electronic readings.
Although anticipating dismal water content readings this week, DWR weather watchers note that it’s early in the season and this winter could still turn out average or wet. The concern, however, is that irrigation-dependent San Joaquin Valley farms and some other areas will suffer if the state has a third consecutive dry year. It would also bring higher wildfire risks.
Lake Oroville in Butte County, the State Water Project’s (SWP) principal reservoir, today is at only 36 percent of its 3.5 million acre-foot capacity (57 percent of its historical average for the date). Shasta Lake north of Redding, California’s and the federal Central Valley Project’s (CVP) largest reservoir, is at 37 percent of its 4.5 million acre-foot capacity (57 percent of average for the date). San Luis Reservoir, a critical south-of-Delta reservoir for both the SWP and CVP, is a mere 30 percent of its 2 million acre-foot capacity (43 percent of average for the date) due both to dry weather and Delta pumping restrictions last winter to protect salmon and Delta smelt. Delta water is pumped into the off stream reservoir in winter and early spring for summer use in the Bay Area, San Joaquin Valley, Central Coast and Southern California.
In November, DWR announced an initial allocation of only five percent of the amount of State Water Project water requested for calendar year 2014. Although the initial allocation is an early-season, conservative estimate of how much water DWR anticipates it will be able to deliver, the 5 percent initial estimate for 2014 and for calendar year 2010 are the lowest ever.