Specter of drought looms as California’s weather turns dry again

Take a captivating aerial tour of California’s massive water system

DWR has released a fly-over video of the State Water Project, the water storage and delivery system of reservoirs, aqueducts, power plants and pumping plants serving 25 million Californians and 750,000 acres of irrigation.
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DWR has released a fly-over video of the State Water Project, the water storage and delivery system of reservoirs, aqueducts, power plants and pumping plants serving 25 million Californians and 750,000 acres of irrigation.

The storms have passed and California’s dry winter has returned, raising the specter that the state could be entering another drought less than a year after the last one officially ended.

After a brief spell of rain and snow improved California’s water conditions last week, the National Weather Service said Monday it’s forecasting at least two weeks of dry weather.

A strong high-pressure ridge has settled over the Pacific Ocean. The ridge will block any storms from reaching the state, and “is going to stick around for a while,” said Michelle Mead, a weather service meteorologist in Sacramento.

The forecast adds to the ever-present worry that California is heading into a major prolonged dry spell, less than a year after Gov. Jerry Brown officially declared an end to the state’s historic five-year drought.

“We do still have, technically, half of the wet season left, but we’ve blown through half our bank account with no income,” said Jeffrey Mount, a water expert with the Public Policy Institute of California. “This is just not a welcome sign. ... By the time we get to mid-February, if it hasn’t rained, the odds of having even a normal year are very small.”

Rainfall in Sacramento is 26 percent below average, despite a rainier-than-usual January, and the Sierra Nevada snowpack is 70 percent below average. The snowpack is a critical component of California’s water supply. As the snow melts, it helps replenish California’s reservoirs through the state’s sweltering summer and fall months.

However, state officials and others said it’s far too early to declare another emergency, such as the one in the last drought that prompted Brown to order urban Californians to slash their cumulative water use by 25 percent.

Weather officials said it isn’t unusual for California to experience dry spells of a month or longer during the rainy season. Plus, thanks to last winter’s record precipitation in the north state, almost all of California’s major storage reservoirs are at above-average elevation for this time of year. Folsom Lake, for instance, is at 116 percent of its historical average. The only significant exception is Lake Oroville. The state’s second largest reservoir is being deliberately held at lower-than-average levels as a safety precaution following the spillway crisis last February.

Given the bountiful rain last winter, “the impacts aren’t there” to declare a new drought, said Jeanine Jones, interstate resources manager for the California Department of Water Resources. “But what we’d always like to be able to know is: Was 2017 ... one wet year in what might otherwise be a prolonged dry period? Simply, the science of forecasting isn’t there to tell us that yet.”

Jones’ agency on Monday raised the year’s water allocation to 20 percent for member agencies of the State Water Project. The initial allocation, announced last November, was 15 percent. The percentage could grow again if the winter’s precipitation improves. The percentage refers to the amount of water available compared to how much the member agencies have requested.

Experts such as Mount caution the state needs multiple wet winters to erase the water deficit left by the last drought.

For instance, the state’s groundwater, a key source of California’s supply, still remains woefully overdrafted in some areas, particularly in San Joaquin Valley farm country where farmers pumped record amounts to make up for lost surface water during the drought.

Groundwater makes up about 60 percent of all fresh water consumed in California during drought years, and about 40 percent in average years. The state is still in the process of rolling out a new groundwater law that attempts to set limits in overdrafted areas for the first time.

Meanwhile, many municipalities such as Sacramento kept lawn-watering restrictions in place from the drought years.

The state also plans to make some conservation rules enacted during the drought permanent in the coming weeks, said George Kostyrko, spokesman for the State Water Resources Control Board. In late February, the board plans to impose permanent prohibitions on water wasting, such as using drinking water to hose down sidewalks and driveways.

Mount said still more needs to be done to better prepare California for the next drought. As it stands, he said the state’s strategy too often relies on hoping for a wet winter to bail the state out. Given the latest forecast, water managers might be praying for a “Miracle March” soaking to bump up the state’s water supply close to normal.

“There’s a reason it’s called ‘Miracle’ March,” Mount said. “Miracles don’t come very often.”

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler