El Niño gave Sacramento its biggest rainstorm in more than a year Tuesday, overwhelming gutters and snarling traffic but putting another small dent in the drought.
The second straight day of El Niño storms meant snow chain controls for much of the Sierra Nevada and occasional traffic accidents throughout the Sacramento region. A pre-dawn big-rig crash on southbound Highway 99 near Dillard Road forced lane closures, while a car crash later in the morning on northbound Interstate 5 near Pocket Road caused headaches for commuters. Vehicles encountered significant flooding early in the day on the Capital City Freeway, near the E Street exit. Caltrans said a jackknifed big rig near the Nevada border brought eastbound traffic on Interstate 80 to a halt for about an hour.
As of Tuesday evening, downtown Sacramento received 1.29 inches of rain in the previous 24 hours. That was the city’s heaviest 24-hour rainfall since the 2.1-inch deluge that fell Dec. 11, 2014, said the National Weather Service’s Karl Swanberg.
An urban and small-stream flood advisory was in effect for part of the day, along with winter-storm warnings in the Sierra until late in the evening. “Lots of puddling water during the morning commute, some lane closures,” Swanberg said.
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Rain paused at midmorning, resumed after lunch and was expected to continue well into the evening. Another round of wet weather was forecast for Wednesday and Thursday, with snow predicted at elevations as low as 3,500 feet.
The precipitation gave California officials new hope that the four-year drought could ease. But they cautioned that a truer picture of California’s water supply won’t emerge until spring, when the rainy season will end, and they urged residents to keep conserving in the meantime.
As the rain was falling in Sacramento, the State Water Resources Control Board announced that urban water conservation slipped in November to its lowest rate since mandatory cutbacks took effect. Nonetheless, the agency called the results encouraging and said California remained on track to meet the 25 percent cutbacks through February ordered by Gov. Jerry Brown.
The conservation rate was 20.3 percent in November, compared with two years earlier, marking the second straight month that savings didn’t hit the governor’s 25 percent mandate. But cumulative savings total 26.3 percent since the order took effect in June, and Californians have conserved enough water in six months – nearly 329 billion gallons – to serve 5 million residents for a year.
Water board Chair Felicia Marcus said the November numbers were actually strong, considering that many Californians cut way back on outdoor watering in the summer and now have to squeeze out most of their savings by restricting indoor use.
“It’s easy to point to the 20.3 (percent) as a bad thing, which it’s not,” Marcus said. “Folks are saving a lot of water indoors to meet that number.”
Sacramentans are being particularly diligent about it.
Most water districts in the region posted water use declines of at least 30 percent in November. The Fair Oaks Water District recorded 46 percent savings, the most of any agency in the region. That was well above Fair Oaks’ mandate of 36 percent. The smallest declines were at the Sacramento Suburban Water District, where customers cut use by 14 percent, well below their target of 32 percent savings.
Although the statewide mandate is 25 percent, the order varies according to historical usage patterns. Most districts in the Sacramento area have to reduce consumption by at least 28 percent.
Eight of the region’s 23 largest water districts are not meeting cumulative water conservation targets. None are missing by much, though. The city of Folsom is off by the largest amount: roughly 3 percentage points. On the other end of the spectrum, customers in Roseville, Elk Grove, Woodland, West Sacramento and the California American Water Company Sacramento District are hitting their targets with significant room to spare.
Marcus acknowledged that the current spell of wet weather could tempt some Californians to backslide on conservation, but she believes many will stay the course.
“There’s no question it makes it more challenging but I think Californians, particularly in the last six months, have really stepped up and the polls all show they’re interested in longer-term water security,” she said. Agency officials noted that water levels in major California reservoirs, including Folsom, Shasta and Oroville, remain well below average for this time of year.
The mandated cutbacks are expected to be extended through October, albeit in modified form. Notably, the mandates are expected to be relaxed for hot, inland areas such as Sacramento, where it takes more water to keep lawns and trees from dying.