Winter forecast suggests drought worries not over for California

Water levels to continue to drop at Beals Point at Folsom Lake. A winter outlook released Thursday by the National Weather Service suggests drought is likely to continue in many parts of California for another year.
Water levels to continue to drop at Beals Point at Folsom Lake. A winter outlook released Thursday by the National Weather Service suggests drought is likely to continue in many parts of California for another year. aseng@sacbee.com

If ever there was a winter when California needed rain, this is it. One early prediction, however, offers little hope.

A winter outlook released Thursday by the National Weather Service suggests drought is likely to continue in many parts of California for a fourth straight year. Although that prediction is early and marked by some uncertainty, it’s enough to keep water officials on edge.

“California is now extremely vulnerable to water shortages,” said Kevin Werner, western regional climate services director at the National Weather Service. “The situation is unlikely to change even if we get an average winter.”

He noted the three-year drought now underway is the driest ever recorded in the state.

The forecast by the agency’s Climate Prediction Center is an effort to broadly frame what kind of weather lies ahead through January. This time frame encompasses a big share of the usual period in which California might hope for some drought relief. And the outlook is not encouraging.

According to the forecast, odds favor greater than average precipitation only in Southern California, mainly south of Bakersfield. While that is certainly a bright spot in the forecast, it is Northern California and its Sierra Nevada that need heavy precipitation to replenish rivers and reservoirs that supply water for two-thirds of the state’s population. There, no strong signal exists to suggest either wet or dry conditions, said Mike Halpert, acting director of the prediction center.

The forecast also strongly favors warmer-than-average temperatures across the north state, which works against hopes for a big snowpack.

“Given the magnitude of the drought, even in a best-case scenario there are still going to be large parts of California in drought even when winter’s over,” Halpert said.

The agency also released a separate drought outlook through January. This forecasts not just water availability, but also moisture in the soil and plants and other factors. It shows drought is likely to persist or intensify from about Santa Barbara northward. Exceptions include areas south of the Grapevine and coastal areas north of Santa Cruz, where drought may ease but will continue.

The predictions mean water agencies will not let up on their conservation campaigns anytime soon. A report last week by the State Water Resources Control Board showed that, statewide, Californians reduced their water consumption 11.5percent in August compared with the same month in 2013.

That’s a big improvement from the 7.5percent saved in July, but still a long way from the 20percent target set by Gov. Jerry Brown in his January drought emergency declaration. Only the Sacramento Valley region has consistently met that goal, reducing its water consumption 22.6percent in August.

Amy Talbot, water efficiency program manager at the Sacramento Regional Water Authority, said it will be harder to maintain that conservation progress, and do even more, as the drought continues. That is because a lot of the easy stuff – like reducing outdoor watering – has already been done.

“Even though we’ve been making a big difference with our conservation, I think we’re going to need to gear up to do more,” Talbot said. “We’re settling in for the long term with this drought.”

The water authority represents nearly two dozen water agencies in the four-county Sacramento metro area, and helps coordinate conservation programs in the region. Talbot said the agency plans to do more to improve indoor water conservation, such as helping customers fix leaky plumbing and replace old clothes washers and dishwashers.

One program about to launch, she said, involves installing low-flow toilets, shower heads and faucet aerators in 4,500 low-income households throughout the region, including the city of Sacramento. It will be free to eligible ratepayers and is a “direct-install” program, meaning the water company will hire someone to do all the work.

“It’s going to be highly unlikely a complete drought recovery would happen this winter,” Talbot said. “Ultimately, the continuation of these dry conditions will be our new reality, and we’re trying to prepare.”

The winter predictions are influenced partly by the potential this winter for El Niño conditions, in which equatorial waters of the Pacific Ocean warm up and alter weather patterns across North America. The weather service predicts an El Niño will be in effect within two months and continue through spring 2015. But it will be a weak El Niño, which makes accurate predictions even more difficult.

It is often believed that El Niño means wet winters in California. That can be true in Southern California. But the results are far less certain in the central and northern parts of the state, where the annual snowpack is always the most important measure of water supply. Of 22 El Niño events over the past 60-plus years, exactly half produced above-normal precipitation and half were below normal. In the 16 weak to moderate El Niño years, only five produced above-normal rainfall.

Jeanine Jones, interstate resources manager for the state Department of Water Resources, estimates California needs 150percent of normal rainfall to fill up its reservoirs.

“It’s definitely too early to tell which way the cards will fall,” she said. “But we need to be prepared for a worst case in the event that should happen.”

El Niño or not, officials emphasized there is uncertainty in the long-range forecast released Thursday.

“Seasonal climate forecasting is a young and evolving science,” said Halpert. “This is our best possible prediction of how we think the winter will shape up.”

Call The Bee’s Matt Weiser at (916)321-1264. Follow him on Twitter @matt_weiser.

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