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  • Rich Pedroncelli / AP

    Frank Gehrke, right, chief of snow surveys for the Department of Water Resources, checks the weight of the snowpack sample on a scale held by Joshua Nelson, of the Dept. of Finance who accompanied Gehrke on the snow survey at Echo Summit, Calif., Tuesday, April 1, 2014. The survey showed the snow pack to to be 33.7 inches deep with a water content of 8.1 inches, which is 29 percent of normal for this site at this time of year.

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  • Manny Crisostomo /

  • Rich Pedroncelli / AP

    Frank Gehrke, chief of snow surveys for the Department of Water Resources, center carries a snow survey tube as he crosses a snow covered meadow during the snowpack survey at Echo Summit, Calif., Tuesday, April 1, 2014. The survey showed the snowpack to to be 33.7 inches deep with a water content of 8.1inches, which is 29 percent of normal for this site at this time of year. Gehrke was accompanied by Joshua Nelson, left, from the Dept. of Finance, and California Council on Science and Technology Policy Fellow, Nicole Meyer-Morse. (AP Photo/ Rich Pedroncelli)

Despite recent storms, Sierra snowpack remains well below normal

Published: Tuesday, Apr. 1, 2014 - 1:33 pm
Last Modified: Wednesday, Apr. 2, 2014 - 9:05 am

These are strange days for California water officials. The penultimate snow survey of the season Tuesday found the Sierra Nevada snowpack holding 32 percent of normal water content – a relatively dismal reading – and yet many of them expressed relief.

A few months earlier, those water officials had feared much worse.

In late January, average snowpack across the mountain range that serves as a crucial water bank for the state sat at less than 20 percent of normal. It hadn’t rained in Sacramento for more than six weeks. Area leaders were discussing what to do if Folsom Reservoir, which supplies much of the region’s fresh water, drained below the point at which water could be drawn through existing pipes.

Since then, the Sacramento region has seen several storms, including systems during the last few days that have blanketed much of the Sierra with snow and, at lower elevations, resulted in periods of pounding rain. Those storms do not represent a “March Miracle.” But they do mean that local taps should keep running for the rest of the year.

“We have gone from a really catastrophic water situation to just a very bad one,” said Tom Gohring, executive director of the Sacramento Water Forum, a coalition of water agencies and environmental groups.

State officials concurred, saying California now faces the third- or fourth-driest snow year on record, instead of the driest year ever.

“It pulled us out of the cellar,” said Maurice Roos, the state’s chief hydrologist. “But it’s still not going to be enough for everybody.”

Roos expects the snowpack to grow a little as storms continue during the next few days. But, after that, “things are looking grim,” he said.

While no longer historic, this year’s drought is compounded because it follows two consecutive years of abnormally dry weather, when Sierra snow levels peaked at just over half of the typical average for April 1. As of last week, 75 percent of the state was experiencing conditions characterized as extreme or exceptional drought.

And while Sacramento will feel less strain because of the recent storms, its rivers feed the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a collection point for Sierra snowmelt and the primary source of water for agencies serving 25 million people and 1 million acres of farmland between San Jose and San Diego.

Farmers in California’s vast Central Valley, who rely on snowmelt diverted from the Delta, can still expect a relatively tough year for supplies.

Officials who operate the State Water Project, which delivers Sierra snowmelt to cities and farms throughout the state, predicted earlier this year that its agricultural customers could expect zero percent of normal water allocations. That forecast is not expected to change significantly given Tuesday’s snowpack readings. Valley farmers have turned to groundwater pumping and, in many cases, fallowing fields to absorb the cutbacks.

Most Sacramento-area water districts have instituted voluntary or mandatory water restrictions, asking customers to cut water use by 20 percent or more. Gohring, the Water Forum director, said the recent storms aren’t likely to prompt districts to cancel those restrictions, but that threats of harsher measures are unlikely to materialize. “It appears that 20 percent will do it,” he said.

Gohring and others draw some optimism from the water level at Folsom Lake, which stands at roughly 65 percent of normal for this date, state figures show. That’s better than some of the other reservoirs in the state that haven’t seen as much rain.

“Folsom will probably fill up before the others,” Roos said.

Still, Folsom Lake is not dedicated solely to serving the needs of Sacramento residents. Some of its water – how much is hard to predict – will be needed for environmental purposes such as maintaining the proper salinity in Delta channels, where river flows remain depleted.

Given supply uncertainty and the shallow snowpack, several area water districts are moving forward with emergency actions put in place before the recent storms.

The Fair Oaks Water District, long reliant on Folsom Lake, is planning to draw heavily on groundwater this year. The district expanded its system of groundwater wells in anticipation of drought, and has relied extensively on those supplies in the last few months, general manager Tom Gray said. Fair Oaks expects to get roughly 50 percent of its normal surface water allocation from Folsom Lake this year, Gray said.

“We have to make up that with alternative water supplies: groundwater, surface water supplies from other sources,” he said. Fair Oaks residents have responded well to a voluntary call for 20 percent reduction in water use, Gray said.

Another water purveyor, the El Dorado Irrigation District, depends primarily on Jenkinson Lake in the Sierra foothills and a series of alpine lakes for supplies, and continues to face challenges. The district asked customers to cut water use by 30 percent earlier this year. As of March 25, they had cut use by just 9 percent, said district spokeswoman Mary Lynn Carlton. As a consequence, the district is considering imposing special drought rates.

“Our consumption has been so high,” Carlton said. “We are pretty far behind.”

The city of Sacramento will wait for decisions from state and federal officials about water allocations and river flows before it determines how to move forward with water restrictions, utilities manager Dave Brent said. The city has instituted mandatory 20 percent water use cuts and has handed out hundreds of citations to rule-breaking customers.

Sacramento is moving forward with plans to install submersible pumps in the Sacramento River. It already has installed such pumps, which ensure it can continue drawing water if river flows drop, in the American River.

Recent rains make the city’s water outlook “better than it was,” Brent said. But, referring to Tuesday’s snow survey, he added: “I’d like it to be at 64 percent.”

Call The Bee’s Phillip Reese, (916) 321-1137.

Read more articles by Phillip Reese

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