While a picturesque flurry of snow hit the Sierras last week, it won’t have much impact on water supplies according to the most recent snow survey done last Thursday.
Part of a statewide assessment, the measurements at Phillips Station near Echo Summit revealed snow that was more air than water, according to Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Survey for the California Department of Water Resources.
After taking seven measurements, he came up with an average depth of 12.4 inches of snow with a water content of 1.4 percent, which is only 7 percent of average for this time of year.
“This is not very good news,” said Gehrke, noting that both the quantity of snowfall and water content were very low for January. “Normally the snow would be up to my head.”
Statewide the results are not much better. Manual and electronic readings on Thursday recorded the snowpack’s water content at only 12 percent of average for this time of year.
Gehrke said with the limited snowfall we’ve had to date, this season may turn out to be the second driest on record.
“An inch improvement in water content doesn’t really make any difference in runoff at this time,” he said. “We need about 18 inches to bring us back up to where we need to be. Without a significant change in the circulation pattern, we won’t get that.”
A stubborn high pressure system off the West Coast appears to be the culprit in blocking winter storms from coming ashore. The current one has been situated off the coast for 14 months now and shows no signs of dissipating. “These can be of fairly long duration,” said Gehrke, adding that there is nothing anyone can do about it.
Without more rain and snow, the effects will be felt throughout the state, he said, affecting water use, recreation, the generation of hydroelectric power, forest fires and agricultural production.
On Friday, Gehrke’s comments proved prophetic as DWR officials issued a press release outlining a series of steps to preserve the state’s water supply.
“The harsh weather leaves us little choice,” DWR Director Mark Cowin said. “If we are to have any hope of coping with continued dry weather and balancing multiple needs, we must act now to preserve what water remains in our reservoirs.
“Except for a small amount of carryover water from 2013, customers of the State Water Project will get no deliveries in 2014 if current dry conditions persist and deliveries to agricultural districts with long-standing water rights in the Sacramento Valley may be cut 50 percent — the maximum permitted by contract — depending upon future snow survey results,” Cowin continued. “It is important to note that almost all areas served by the SWP have other sources of water, such as groundwater, local reservoirs, and other supplies.”
DWR officials also asked the State Water Resources Control Board to adjust water permit terms that control SWP and federal Central Valley Project operations in order to preserve dwindling supplies in upstream reservoirs for farms, fisheries, cities and towns as the drought continues.
According to the press release, while additional winter storms may provide some limited boost to reservoir storage and water deliveries, it would need to rain and snow heavily every other day from now until May to get the state back to average annual rain and snowfall. Even then, California still would be in a drought, because normally wet December and January have been critically dry — and follow a record dry 2013 and a dry 2012.
“This historic announcement reflects the severity of California’s drought,” stated the release. “After two previous dry years, 2014 is shaping up as the driest in state history. Storage in key reservoirs now is lower than at this time in 1977, one of the two previous driest water years on record.
“Lake Oroville in Butte County, the principal SWP reservoir, is at 36 percent of its 3.5 million acre-foot capacity (55 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 36 percent of its 4.5 million acre-foot capacity (54 percent of average for the date). San Luis Reservoir, a critical south-of-Delta reservoir for both the SWP and CVP, is at a mere 30 percent of its 2 million acre-foot capacity (39 percent of average for the date).”
Never before in the 54-year history of the State Water Project has the agency announced a zero allocation to all 29 public water agencies that buy from the SWP. These deliveries help supply water to 25 million Californians and roughly 750,000 acres of irrigated farmland.
However, “carryover” water stored by local agencies and water transferred from willing sellers to buyers in critically short areas still will be delivered, as will emergency supplies for drinking, sanitation and fire protection.
DWR and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials have also petitioned the SWRCB for a series of changes to existing requirements including those governing freshwater outflows from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta; management of water quality regulations governing the Cross-Channel Gates along the Sacramento River; and other rules applying to reservoirs.
The federal CVP, which supplies much of the state’s agricultural water, is expected to announce its initial allocation next month. It also will be dismal, according to DWR, especially for irrigation-dependent farms on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.
Water-short Valley farmers are expected to fallow thousands of acres, sending negative economic ripples through communities dependent on the agricultural economy.
As farmers will pump increasing amounts of groundwater, further depleting overtapped aquifers, Gov. Jerry Brown directed DWR to monitor groundwater levels, land subsidence and land fallowing as the drought persists.
Following Brown’s announcement earlier this month of a drought State of Emergency, Cal Fire has hired an additional 125 firefighters; other state agencies have offered assistance to communities at risk of drinking water shortages; fishing has been restricted on some waterways; and citizens have been asked to voluntarily cut back by 20 percent on their water usage.
”We need everyone in every part of the state to conserve water,” said Gov. Brown in his Jan. 22 State of the State address.