Water & Drought

Critical Sierra survey finds healthy snowpack – but no ‘drought buster’

After years of drought and months of speculation about how much precipitation a strong El Niño weather pattern would bring, the results are in:

We’ve had a roughly average year.

On about this date last year, Gov. Jerry Brown stood in a dry field near Lake Tahoe and announced that he would require California’s urban water districts to cut use by 25 percent. Snowpack on that day was roughly 5 percent of normal.

On Wednesday, standing atop several feet of snow in the same spot, state officials announced that snow water content at the site is 97 percent of average. Sensors across the Sierra show statewide snow water content at 87 percent of average. Snowpack historically reaches its peak around April 1; the date serves as a benchmark when comparing one year’s snowfall to another.

Three of Northern California’s largest reservoirs – Lake Shasta, Lake Oroville and Folsom Lake – have reached flood control stage, triggering water releases. Statewide, reservoir storage is at 85 percent of the historical average.

State officials previously have cited critical benchmarks, in terms of water storage, that could indicate the state’s five-year drought had finally broken. Among them: The major reservoirs in the Sacramento River Basin hit flood control stage; or statewide reservoir storage is at 90 percent of normal.

But no such official proclamation came Wednesday. Instead, Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program, downplayed the “March miracle” that has bolstered Northern California water supplies but not substantially changed conditions in the south state.

The snowpack, Gerke said, was “not what we had hoped for. Not enough really.”

The catch centers on California’s complex plumbing network. Southern California, even in average precipitation years, is heavily reliant on water shipped from Northern California for irrigation and drinking water needs. So, one year of average precipitation in the north state is not enough to undo the impacts of five dry years statewide.

Historically, California’s significant multi-year droughts have ended when statewide precipitation totaled about 150 percent of average, according to the Department of Water Resources. So far this year, statewide precipitation is close to average.

Several water experts noted that El Niño has not delivered as much precipitation in Southern California as in the north; that most reservoirs in Southern California remain well below historical averages; and that groundwater aquifers in parts of the south remain depleted.

“We’re still going to be having a drought south of the Delta in the San Joaquin Valley,” said Jeffrey Mount, UC Davis professor emeritus and senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California Water Policy Center. “An average year, in a portion of the state, is not a drought buster.”


Still, Mount stressed, “there is no doubt that we’re in much better shape than last year ... Folsom will fill, Oroville is likely to fill or come close to it. So is Shasta.”

Thanks to the improved snowpack and reservoir conditions, farmers will receive far more surface water this year than in the recent past. The State Water Project, which pumps billions of gallons of water to farms and cities throughout California, estimated this month it would provide customers with 45 percent of their requested allocations this year. That would be the highest since 2012, and the figure could yet be revised upward.

Even with the higher allocation, many farmers in the San Joaquin Valley and elsewhere in Southern California will need to pump substantial amounts of groundwater to sustain their crops, several experts said.

The disconnect between conditions in the northern and southern parts of California will be a key issue facing state leaders this year. Cracks in a unified approach to the drought are already apparent.

Earlier this month, the San Juan Water District near Folsom Lake declared its local water supply healthy and said there is no longer a need for its customers to drastically curb water use. Board officials said they no longer would adhere to a mandate from the State Water Resources Control board ordering the district to cut use by 33 percent.

Amy Talbot, water efficiency program manager for the Regional Water Authority, said in a statement Wednesday that current conditions merit relaxing or rescinding emergency conservation mandates in parts of the state with healthy water supplies.

“The reliability of a water provider’s portfolio should be the fundamental element in considering mandatory water conservation during drought,” she said.

Meanwhile, Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, said that the “big wish and hope” of a wet winter hadn’t materialized. “We’ve had another drought year in Southern California, even with El Niño,” he said.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., speaking to The Sacramento Bee editorial board Wednesday, warned against quickly loosening the mandatory restrictions imposed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year.

“I think it’s premature right now,” she said. “I think we need to see what happens in April ... an important month for water.”

The State Water Resources Control Board will revisit its conservation mandates in May. Max Gomberg, climate and conservation manager, said the board likely will move to “a more regional framework” in which different areas face different targets, depending in part on the health of their water supply.

“We’re sensitive to what local water agencies are going through, trying to keep customers conserving when the customers can see how much rain there’s been,” Gomberg said.

But the board is not going to abandon conservation mandates, he said. He noted that when Brown called for voluntary conservation in 2014, “It wasn’t sufficient.”

“We don’t want to tell people to ‘go back to your profligate water use and don’t worry,’” he said. “Part of why we’re being so painstaking about this next set of rules is we do want to acknowledge that the drought has been eased in some places more than others.”

The disparate conditions at state reservoirs underscore the need for improvements in California’s water delivery system, said Maury Roos, chief hydrologist at the Department of Water Resources. He pointed to the San Luis Reservoir in Merced County, the fifth-largest reservoir in the state, which stood at 57 percent of its historical depth Wednesday. If California had better ways of moving water, San Luis would, like the northern reservoirs, be nearly full, he said.

“The state has, generally speaking, an abundance of water in the north, and the large demands are in the southern part of the state,” Roos said. “There is a natural imbalance. You have to find a way to transfer and store it.”

Phillip Reese: 916-321-1137, @PhillipHReese.

Christopher Cadelago of The Bee’s Capitol Bureau contributed to this report

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