December is usually not the time of year to discuss water rationing. But this holiday month has been so dry that mandatory water conservation orders are beginning to sweep across the Sacramento region.
The city of Folsom led the pack on Monday, imposing a mandatory 20 percent water conservation order. On Thursday, Sacramento County asked customers in unincorporated areas to voluntarily reduce water consumption by 20 percent. The cities of Sacramento and Roseville are likely to consider their own measures during the first week of January.
In some cases, these will be the strictest water rationing orders the region has seen since the drought of 1976-77, one of the worst in history.
All this is unusual for December, but it illustrates how dry the month has been. December is normally one of the wettest months of the year, considered crucial to build up a mountain snowpack to help the state survive its dry summers. But this December ranks as one of the driest ever recorded. It suggests California may be facing a third straight dry winter.
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The northern Sierra Nevada, a region crucial to statewide water supplies, has received only 10 percent of average snowfall so far this month, and there’s no sign of that changing in the weather forecast. The National Weather Service on Thursday reported that California can expect dry weather and above-normal temperatures for the next two weeks.
If December ends without rainfall, 2013 is likely to rank as the driest calendar year in state history.
“It’s the kind of year we all worry about,” said Tom Gohring, executive director of Sacramento’s Water Forum, a coalition of local water agencies and environmental groups. “Every time we get together and talk about this, we say ‘Thank God we haven’t had to deal with a 1977.’ Unfortunately, it’s shaping up that way.”
Much of the tension in the Sacramento region involves managing the water that remains in Folsom Lake. Storage in the reservoir dropped below 200,000 acre-feet last week – 20 percent of its capacity – a historic low for December. Because about 500,000 people in Folsom, Fair Oaks, Roseville and other communities depend on that stored water, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on Jan. 1 plans to reduce water releases from the dam into the American River.
That will help communities struggling to stretch their water supplies. But it won’t help salmon and steelhead downstream in the river.
If flow in the river is cut too deeply, fall-run Chinook salmon eggs waiting to hatch in the gravel riverbed could be exposed and killed. If the weather does not change and flows have to be cut more deeply later, the carnage could be worse: steelhead, which spawn later, also could be killed.
Steelhead are an endangered species. Fall-run salmon don’t have the same protection, but are vital to a commercial fishing industry that supports thousands of jobs.
“From a fishery perspective, it’s a really tough balancing act,” said Gohring. “It’s not a stretch to say people are on alert.”
Why we’re dry
The dry weather is caused by a stubborn high-pressure ridge looming over the Gulf of Alaska and stretching across most of the northern Pacific Ocean. It has diverted the normal storm track away from California for months.
The pattern shows no sign of changing. The Climate Prediction Center at the National Weather Service recently forecasted that odds favor below-normal precipitation in Northern California for the entire month of January.
Although a drought has not yet been formally declared in the state, Gov. Jerry Brown ordered creation of a drought task force to weigh such a declaration and plan for serious dry conditions in 2014.
“Even if we pick up with normal weather conditions in January, soil moisture is so low that runoff will be low because the soil will just suck up a lot of that precipitation,” said Jeanine Jones, interstate resources manager at the state Department of Water Resources. “Basically, we’re in a big hole and it isn’t one we can dig out of easily unless we have a series of big storms.”
Agencies wade into action
Water agencies are beginning to brace for the worst.
Folsom’s “Stage 3” water conservation order on Monday directs all residents and businesses to reduce their water consumption by 20 percent. Landscape irrigation is allowed only two days a week, based on address, and never between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. Washing down streets, parking lots, driveways, sidewalks or buildings is prohibited, and construction sites must get city approval before using water.
The San Juan Water District adopted similar restrictions in August and may impose stricter rules in January, said general manager Shauna Lorance. The district serves about 265,000 customers in Granite Bay and portions of Roseville, Folsom and Orangevale. It also provides wholesale water to other utilities in Fair Oaks, Citrus Heights, Orangevale and Folsom. All these entities depend on water stored in Folsom Lake and purchased from the Bureau of Reclamation.
The city of Sacramento is generally in a better position because it owns water rights in the American and Sacramento rivers. It already requires customers, on a year-round basis, to limit winter landscape watering to one day per week. Because of dry conditions this month, the city has already reduced its diversions from the American River and is relying more on wells and Sacramento River supplies, said Dave Brent, department of utilities director.
In addition, the City Council at its meeting on Jan. 7 will decide whether to impose stricter drought rules. Brent said imposing mandatory water conservation of 20 percent may be necessary. He said he could not recall the last time this has occurred, and it may be unprecedented.
How this will be carried out is not entirely clear, because about half the city’s water customers still don’t have water meters. The city faces a 2025 deadline under state law to meter all customers, but in the meantime, measuring whether unmetered customers are complying with a water conservation order is impossible. Brent has appointed an in-house “drought team,” which meets for the first time on Monday, to figure out how to achieve any new conservation targets.
“The need for conservation is coming from the concern for the health of the American River and water supplies for the region,” Brent said. “Effective immediately, we’re going to increase enforcement of our existing ordinance, which is already the most strict in the region.”
Reclamation is currently releasing water from Folsom Dam at 1,300 cubic feet per second. At this rate, the lake loses more than 1,700 acre-feet per day, or enough water to serve about 3,400 average homes for a year. The agency is considering cutting releases to 1,100 cfs on Jan. 1, said Paul Fujitani, deputy operations manager at Reclamation’s Sacramento office.
“We have to assess what that might do to the fishery,” Fujitani said. “The Delta flows down the Sacramento River are very low for this time of year, so it could have implications on that.”
If Reclamation does reduce releases from the dam, the water remaining in the lake would last until mid-March for the agencies, like hers, that depend on it – assuming no storms arrive in the meantime. At that point, Folsom Lake’s water level will have dropped below 100,000 acre-feet, which is too low for San Juan, Folsom, Roseville and others to draw water from the lake without rigging some kind of emergency pumps.
To avoid this possibility, Water Forum members are urging Reclamation to cut releases even more, to 800 cfs. This would prolong the water supply for the 500,000 people who depend on it. But it could also result in stranding as much as 10 percent of the salmon eggs now in the river, Gohring estimates. It would also reduce spawning area for the steelhead now laying eggs in the river.
On the other hand, he said, that may be a better choice than killing those eggs later if it turns out flows have to be dropped to 800 cfs a month anyway. In short, the choice may be to restrict their habitat now, or kill their eggs later.
“It’s looking like things are going to be bad,” he said. “We just want to choose the least amount of bad we can do.”