How much precipitation has fallen on Northern California this winter?
So much that Squaw Valley expects to be open for skiing July 4.
So much that Sacramento’s rainfall has surpassed that of traditional rainy meccas like Seattle and Portland, Ore.
So much that the U.S. Drought Monitor, a study produced weekly by scientists from multiple federal agencies, reported Thursday that only 17 percent of California is still gripped by drought.
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The drought, now at five years and running, won’t officially end in California until Gov. Jerry Brown rescinds his drought emergency declaration. His aides have been careful to warn that areas south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta still suffer from substantial “water deficits,” particularly in the groundwater basins of the San Joaquin Valley.
But after weeks of drenching rains, overtopped levees and a near-catastrophe at Lake Oroville, the state’s second largest reservoir, evidence that the drought is ending is piling up faster than the snows at Squaw Valley.
Squaw and its sister resort, Alpine Meadows, announced Wednesday that they expect to be open during the Fourth of July. The announcement came on a day when workers were digging out chairlift terminals nearly buried in snow and clearing snow farther up the mountain because it threatened to trip people right out of their lift chairs.
The company plans to keep its two Truckee-area resorts open until June, and at least one of them, likely Squaw Valley, will reopen on July 4, said spokeswoman Liesl Kenney.
“It’s been pretty wild,” she said. “It’s been like ‘Groundhog Day’ for the last seven weeks. Every time we dig out of a storm, another one hits.”
The last time Squaw was open July 4 was in 2011, the year it received record snowfall in March. Last year, Squaw closed for the season on Memorial Day.
Squaw has recorded 565 inches of snow this season, well above the season average of 450 inches.
Other resorts plan to extend their seasons, too. Heavenly and Northstar plan to stay open daily until April 23, while Kirkwood will stay open until April 16. Those three resorts’ owner, Vail Resorts of Colorado, said this is the snowiest winter the Tahoe area has seen in 22 years.
The total Sierra Nevada snowpack stands at 90 percent above average. It will start melting this spring, delivering additional water to reservoirs and rivers that have been struggling to keep up the past few weeks. However, the snow should probably melt slowly enough to allow the system to absorb it all, said Jay Lund, director of UC Davis’ Center for Watershed Sciences.
As it is, problems have abounded in Northern California. After its main spillway faltered, the reservoir behind Oroville Dam filled to the brim the weekend of Feb. 11 and water started pouring over its emergency spillway. When engineers feared the emergency structure might give way, officials ordered the evacuation of 190,000 residents the next day, although the situation stabilized quickly and the evacuees were allowed to return home. The lake has fallen to the point that the Department of Water Resources said Thursday it would reduce releases from the main spillway to 50,000 cubic feet of water per second, a decline of about 15 percent.
But other communities are continuing to deal with a glut of water. About 14,000 residents had to evacuate in San Jose earlier this week, with nearly 200 rescued by boat. The tiny Sacramento Valley farm town of Maxwell was flooded. Modesto and other communities in the San Joaquin Valley have been on high alert as reservoirs have filled and levees have been strained to capacity.
In particular, Don Pedro reservoir in Tuolumne County was 100 percent full Thursday, according to the Department of Water Resources. That will create pressures on levees in the short term and for several weeks to come.
With a giant snowpack waiting to melt this spring, “Don Pedro is going to have to make some room to capture that,” Lund said. “So are all the other river reservoirs.”
Shasta Lake, the state’s largest reservoir, is holding 4.2 million acre-feet of water. That’s nearly 1 million more than is considered appropriate under U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood-safety regulations. But Louis Moore, spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which runs Shasta, said the bureau is confident the reservoir can release water quickly if necessary and operate safely.
Moore said Shasta Dam opened its spillway gates briefly Wednesday for the first time since 1998, but it was “just a test.” Shasta has been releasing water on an ongoing basis this winter from its regular river outlets, he said.
While the next significant precipitation isn’t expected until Saturday, rain and snow totals are continuing to accumulate. Rain gauges in the northern Sierra Nevada have received 76 inches of water since the rainy season began in October, putting them on track to exceed the record of 88.5 inches recorded in the 1982-83 winter.
Down in the valley, Sacramento has received nearly 16.6 inches of rain since Jan. 1, or more than twice the historical average. That’s 2.5 inches more than Portland and 6.5 inches more than Seattle, according to the National Weather Service.
Little wonder the U.S. Drought Monitor reported Thursday that just 17 percent of California is still suffering from the drought. That’s almost a complete turnaround from the start of the rainy season in early October, when almost 84 percent of the state was still in drought and just 16 percent was drought-free.
The monitor said Northern California is completely free of drought. Of those areas still suffering, most are in “moderate” drought while a few are in “severe” drought. None of the state is in “extreme” or “exceptional” drought, the monitor’s two most serious categories.
The Drought Monitor is updated weekly by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska. The analysis is based on precipitation volumes, depth of the Sierra Nevada snowpack, water levels in the key reservoirs, groundwater conditions and strength of river flows.
Officials with the Brown administration have said they believe the weekly monitor doesn’t adequately take into account such factors as the “water deficit” that has accumulated since the drought began, particularly in the state’s overpumped aquifers.
Lund said groundwater is severely depleted in the Tulare Basin area of the San Joaquin Valley. But he said the region should receive enough surface water this summer to allow farmers and communities to ease off on the groundwater pumping.
Two weeks ago, the State Water Resources Control Board voted to extend its drought conservation regulations for another 270 days, although those regulations aren’t nearly as strict as they were a year ago.