Water & Drought

Could El Niño turn into a dud for California?

Video: Watch progression of California snowpack 2015-16

Curious about California’s snowfall? Here is a look at snow depth since Oct. 1, 2015.
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Curious about California’s snowfall? Here is a look at snow depth since Oct. 1, 2015.

Sacramento is in the peak of its rainy season, but there is no substantial rain in the forecast. The Sierra snowpack has fallen below normal levels for this time of year. The state’s three largest reservoirs remain far below capacity.

Whither El Niño?

A winter season that began with considerable promise toward breaking the drought has given way to a staggeringly dry February. Despite heavy rain in January, the Sacramento area this season has seen just half as much precipitation as it did at the same point in 1983 and 1998, the last two major El Niño winters.

Compounding California’s water woes, residents have lagged recently on water conservation. The State Water Resources Control Board reported Thursday that California’s urban water districts missed their conservation mandates in January for the fourth month in a row. Cumulative savings for California since June, when conservation ordered by Gov. Jerry Brown went into effect, have now slipped below the governor’s 25 percent mandate.

“We can’t count on El Niño to save us,” Felicia Marcus, the state’s chief drought regulator, said Thursday. “February has been a bear, with no disrespect to bears  . We’re hoping for a miracle March and an awesome April.”

Sacramento has received just eight-tenths of an inch of rain so far in February. The average for the month is 3 inches. But experts such as Bill Patzert, who tracks the climate at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, said the dry spell doesn’t mean El Niño has run its course.

In the 1983 El Niño winter, for example, “the big show really didn’t happen until March and April,” he said. “I’m still holding out hope.”

Jan Null, a private consultant with Golden Gate Weather Services in Saratoga, agreed.

“It’s possible there’s another shoe to drop,” he said. “There is still a lot of warm water out in the Pacific,” Null said. Warmer-than-average waters in the Pacific are the hallmark of El Niño.

During the next seven days, the only rain in the forecast is a mild system arriving Friday night that is expected to bring less than one-tenth of an inch of precipitation to Sacramento, and a pattern next Friday described by the National Weather Service as “not a very strong system.”

Null said this year’s winter is yet another reminder that El Niños are unpredictable and any long-range weather forecast is suspect. The nexus of warm water in the Pacific is farther west than usual this year. That is a factor in determining where the rain will fall. Often, El Niño brings heavy rain to Southern California; this year, it’s been rainier in Northern California, and portions of the Pacific Northwest have gotten record precipitation.

“We don’t know all the answers,” Null said. “This has sort of become the poster child that all El Niños are different.”

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. The current drought, in its fifth year, is believed to be the worst on record. So far, rain in Northern California is at 105 percent of average, while the snowpack has fallen to a statewide average of 91 percent.

While precipitation this winter is a major improvement over the past four years, “it’s only average now,” said the National Weather Service’s Michelle Mead. “We need it above average to make a dent.”

The state water board has extended the urban conservation mandates, which were due to expire this month, through the end of October. But the extended regulations relax the conservation mandates for many inland communities, where hot weather makes it harder to keep lawns and trees alive. Many of the water agencies in greater Sacramento will see their targets fall by 3 percentage points.

Water board officials defended the modified regulations Thursday, but said they’ll take a fresh look at the standards once they have a better idea of how much precipitation the state receives this winter.

The January conservation numbers showed Californian cities cut water use by about 17 percent compared with the same month in 2013. That was the worst performance since mandated cuts began last June, and it means cumulative water savings from June through January have fallen to 24.8 percent. That’s two-tenths of a point below the 25 percent figure ordered by Brown last spring.

The water board said it isn’t surprising that savings rates have slipped. Sprinklers have largely been shut off and Californians are having to eke out savings by taking quicker showers and flushing toilets less often. The results “are still worthy of considerable respect and praise,” Marcus said. “We’re going to be close enough to 25 percent to declare victory.”

Sacramentans cut water usage by 11 percent in January compared with 2013, the lowest savings rate outside of the Bay Area. It was the first time that Sacramento underperformed the state average since mandatory cutbacks began.

Most water districts in the Sacramento region are under orders to cut water use by at least 28 percent. Nine water districts in the region failed to achieve even a 10 percent savings in January, including the cities of Sacramento and Folsom.

Eleven of the 23 largest water districts in the region have fallen below their cumulative conservation targets. Most are missing the targets by a small amount and are unlikely to face penalties. Furthest off the mark are the customers of Golden State Water Company Cordova, the city of Folsom and the Fruitridge Vista Water Company.

Rob Roscoe, general manager of the Sacramento Suburban Water District, said his agency’s 12 percent reduction for January shouldn’t be surprising.

“You’re forced to get those savings inside,” Roscoe said. “That’s a heavier lift. So inside you’re talking about instead of just resetting your sprinklers, it’s a lifestyle change. It’s a three-minute shower instead of a five -minute shower. It’s not flushing the toilet unless you really have to. It’s only full loads of clothes and dishes.”

It could get worse. With February coming in dry and unusually warm, some residents in the region are turning on their sprinklers, something that normally doesn’t happen during winter.

“I joke about tearing out my landscaping and putting in cactus and, you know, another couple of years of this, it might not be a joke any more,” said Neil O’Hara, an environmental consultant who lives in East Sacramento.

Sacramento region conservation

Water agencies in the Sacramento region face varied conservation mandates. This chart shows the targets, as well as the cumulative savings achieved from June through January.

Water agency

Target

% saved

Golden State Cordova

36%

31%

Folsom

32%

27%

Fruitridge Vista

36%

31%

Georgetown Divide

32%

28%

Rio Linda - Elverta

36%

33%

Carmichael

36%

34%

Davis

28%

26%

Placer County

32%

30%

Sacramento Suburban

32%

31%

Fair Oaks

36%

35%

San Juan

36%

36%

Lincoln

32%

32%

Galt

32%

33%

Sacramento

28%

29%

Orange Vale

36%

38%

El Dorado

28%

30%

Citrus Heights

32%

35%

Sacramento County

32%

35%

West Sacramento

28%

32%

Woodland

24%

30%

Roseville

28%

35%

Elk Grove

28%

35%

California-American

20%

35%

Source: State Water Resources Control Board

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