California faces critical drought, despite recent rains

A severe drought persists in California despite the recent precipitation, and parts of the state will face critical water shortages later this year without more rain and snowfall, water experts said at a Friday symposium.

The Sierra snowpack that replenishes the state’s freshwater reservoirs is about as deep today as it was in 1977, the driest season in the last 50 years, state data show. And there are limited weeks left in the winter season that could bring significant snowfall.

Absent more snow, hundreds of thousands of farm acres across the state will sit fallow, the likelihood of wildfires will increase and millions of residents will be asked to make sacrifices related to the amount of water they consume.

“This is like a 1977,” Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, told water officials and others gathered at Sacramento’s Crest Theatre to discuss the drought. “We have a combination of very dry conditions with historically low storage (in reservoirs).

“There are places in California that if we don’t do something about it, tens of thousands of people could turn on their water faucets and nothing would come out.”

Sacramento offers prime evidence of the historic nature of this drought, several experts said Friday.

Thanks to Folsom Lake and robust water rights, much of the region can usually withstand a long dry period. But this season, Sacramento has had just 5 inches of precipitation, compared to the 13 inches the city normally gets by now. The two prior seasons also were drier than average.

As a result, parts of Folsom Lake looked more like a desert than a reservoir at the start of February.

Last week’s storms helped, pouring about 90,000 acre-feet of water into Folsom Lake, which holds about a million acre-feet, Quinn said. The danger has mostly passed that Folsom Lake levels will fall below the valves that area water agencies use to withdraw water from the reservoir, said Shauna Lorance, general manager of the San Juan Water District near Roseville.

But Folsom Lake depths still sit at roughly the same miserable point seen in 1977, Lorance said. As of today, water in the lake would not be sufficient to meet typical summer demands of her district’s customers.

“It’s not a drought year for us,” Lorance said. “It’s an emergency year.”

Statewide, the drought continues to hurt farmers. They’ll let at least 500,000 acres sit fallow this year due to lack of water, said Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition. “It isn’t an issue of greed,” he said. “It’s an issue of survivability at this point.”

In addition, “the livestock industry is reeling,” said Rich Matteis, administrator of the California Farm Bureau Federation. “Folks are selling off their herds.”

Decreased farm production could cause food prices to rise, several experts said. It also could harm the economic recovery in communities that depend on agriculture. “We’re anticipating higher unemployment rates – that’s obvious,” said Stanislaus County Supervisor Vito Chiesa.

The state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has battled about four times as many fires in 2014 as it typically fights by this time of year, said Fire Capt. Scott McLean. The early February storms let firefighters relax a little, but more rain is needed to head off a nasty fire season.

“I’m not saying the sky is falling, but I am very concerned,” McLean said.

The drought is affecting some parts of the state more than others. Much of Southern California, for example, is facing less critical circumstances because its largest purveyor has water banked for an emergency.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves the Los Angeles-San Diego metropolis, depends almost entirely on water imported from other places, including the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Metropolitan has invested $3 billion in local water storage projects, and also has invested heavily in conservation.

The district recently said it has enough water stored to last into 2015, but it has asked customers to voluntarily reduce their water use by an additional 20 percent given statewide conditions.

Districts elsewhere also are turning to conservation to ensure water supplies last.

The city of Sacramento, which, like most inland areas, uses more water per capita than the statewide average, has imposed a mandatory water use reduction of at least 20 percent on its customers. It has increased the number of water enforcement officers handing out citations from six to 40, said Dave Brent, the city’s director of utilities.

“We will have a strong patrol out on the streets,” Brent said.

The quickest way out of the drought is a series of large storms. It still could happen. A high pressure ridge off the coast has weakened and let a few storm systems through this month. But the latest National Weather Service forecast shows that California probably will see a below-average amount of rain during the rest of February.

“The chances of it being an above-average year are just about zero,” said Maury Roos, chief hydrologist for the California Department of Water Resources. “Probably the best we could hope for is 75 percent (of average). And I’m not sure about that.”

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