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‘A pretty good season.’ What California’s winter rain and snow mean for you in 2019

See water flowing through Fremont Weir near Sacramento River

An aerial video shows the water flow through the Fremont Weir, looking from west to east across the weir. Sutter Bypass is on the left side, Yolo Bypass on right. The Sacramento River is near the center, outlined by a row of trees on both banks.
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An aerial video shows the water flow through the Fremont Weir, looking from west to east across the weir. Sutter Bypass is on the left side, Yolo Bypass on right. The Sacramento River is near the center, outlined by a row of trees on both banks.

It’s shaping up as a wetter-than-usual winter in California, putting to rest fears of another drought hitting anytime soon.

Depending on where you live, though, you will still likely face some limitations on how much you can water your lawn this summer.

Last week’s atmospheric river left the Sierra Nevada snowpack and most of the state’s reservoirs in solid shape. There’s more on the way: Another storm, albeit a weak one, is forecast for the Sacramento Valley beginning early Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service. The storm is expected to bring up to 8 inches of snow in the Sierra mountain passes and as much as 3 inches in the foothills.

“Bottom line, we’re certainly, hopefully optimistic that we’re having a pretty good season,” said John Woodling of the Sacramento Regional Water Authority, an association of area water districts.

That doesn’t mean California is guaranteed a successful winter. Jan Null of Golden Gate Weather Services, a private forecaster in Saratoga, said if the rain and snow stopped now for the season, the northern Sierra Nevada precipitation index would read 73 percent of normal. He said he believes the season will wind up “just a little above normal.” The northern Sierra index is watched closely because it measures precipitation in the vicinity of the state’s most important reservoirs.

Still, there are some encouraging signs. The state Department of Water Resources says the Sierra snowpack is 41 percent above average for this time of year — and already 7 percent above average for April 1, the unofficial end of winter in the mountains. The Sierra snowpack acts as a second set of reservoirs, repleneshing the system with melted snow in summer and fall.

For good measure, El Niño officially arrived last week. The weather phenomenon, caused by warm water temperatures in the Pacific, sometimes ushers in extremely heavy rainfall.

From Sacramento to Los Angeles, most major cities are experiencing above-average rain seasons. Practically every reservoir is fuller than usual for this date. The only major exception is Lake Oroville, which is barely half full and and is being held low so crews can complete repairs to Oroville Dam’s flood-control spillways.

California’s long-term water problems are far from over despite the wet conditions. The same is true for restrictions on water usage, many of which remain in place even though the historic five-year drought officially ended in 2017.

The city of Sacramento, for instance, still limits residents to watering their lawns two days a week. The Sacramento County Water Agency has a three-day weekly limit. Most other water agencies have ended restrictions, but many still have some rules in place.

Roseville prohibits watering between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. and requires residents to fix leaks within five days. Citrus Heights and Folsom direct restaurants to serve water only to customers who ask for it. Fair Oaks Water District is one of several that forbids watering lawns less than 48 hours after a rainfall.

Woodling said he doubts any Sacramento-area agencies will eliminate restrictions this year.

The state, meanwhile, continues to wrestle with long-term conservation strategies.

Two bills signed by former Gov. Jerry Brown last summer, AB 1668 and SB 606, call for local districts to establish long-term “water budgets.” The budgets include a target of no more than 55 gallons a day per person for indoor use, declining to 50 gallons in 2030. The targets for outdoor use — where most residents’ water is consumed — will be set in consultation with local districts, and the standards will vary from community to community. Places like greater Sacramento, with large yards and hot summers, will be allowed more water consumption than cool, foggy coastal regions.

Brown’s signature on those bills triggered false claims on conservative news websites that the state was going to fine Californians $1,000 a day if they shower and launder clothes on the same day. Water districts could be fined by the state if they exceed their “water budgets,” but the fines wouldn’t begin until 2027.

Meanwhile, California’s internal wars over water supplies continue to rage, even in a wet year. Gov. Gavin Newsom recently ousted Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board, who championed a controversial plan to reallocate more of the rivers’ flows to endangered fish populations at the expense of agriculture and cities such as San Francisco. Newsom favors a compromise approach that’s been criticized by environmentalists.

At the same time, state officials are trying to fend off efforts by President Donald Trump’s administration to ramp up water deliveries to Central Valley farmers, leaving less for the environment and urban areas.

Accessing the snow-covered valley of Yosemite National Park is difficult in winter, but those who make it say it’s worth the effort.

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Dale Kasler covers climate change, the environment, economics and the convoluted world of California water. He also covers major enterprise stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. He joined The Bee in 1996 from the Des Moines Register and graduated from Northwestern University.
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