With just two months left in what is normally the wettest part of the season and California’s major reservoirs already running low, little doubt remains that dry conditions will persist through spring, experts say.
Even with the latest small burst of cold and damp weather, California’s snowpack remains far below average.
Statewide, the snow’s water content is 61 percent of normal for this time of year according to the most recent Department of Water Resources survey, released in January.
With a budget of $1.6 million annually, DWR collaborates with more than 50 state, federal and private agencies each winter to collect snow data both electronically and manually.
Electric sensors in 130 locations in the Sierra record daily water content information, and once each month a survey team checks data manually from four sites in and around Lake Tahoe, said DWR spokesman Don Strickland.
“How much water is in the snowpack is the important thing,” Strickland said. “Depth isn’t important because [the snow] can compress.”
The team’s latest data displayed an average snow depth of just over 39 inches in four locations between 6,500 and 7,600 feet, with water content 69.6 percent of the long-term average. In the Northern and Central Sierra, the numbers are even lower.
Daily electronic readings yesterday, available online, placed the Northern Sierra average water content at 47 percent, the Central Sierra at 61 percent, and the Southern Sierra at 71 percent of normal for this time of year.
Though the snowpack provides as much as 35 percent of the state’s water supply on its own, it is not the only factor in springtime water conditions, said senior state meteorologist Elissa Lynn.
“The snowpack is a key factor, but it isn’t everything,” she said. “You also can get early season and spring-rains in lower elevations after the peak snow pack has occurred.”
For instance, last year’s snowpack was 111 percent of normal, but was still followed by the driest spring on record in which river runoff dropped to 53 percent of normal, Lynn said.
Yet last year’s drought combined with this year’s even worse winter, conditions don’t bode well.
Low precipitation in January and below-average snowpack indicate that California is heading for a third dry year, said DWR Director Lester Snow in a written statement.
“We may be at the start of the worst California drought in modern history,” Snow said. “It’s imperative for Californians to conserve immediately at home and in their business.”
Never before has the effective use of California’s water supply been more important. Lake Oroville, the principal reservoir used for the State Water Project, is at 28 percent of full capacity and just 43 percent of average storage for this time of year.
DWR estimates that it will only be able to deliver 15 percent of the water requested by the State Water Project, which provides water to 23 million Californians and 755,000 acres of irrigated farmland in the Bay Area, San Joaquin Valley, Central Coast and Southern California.
“California is entering a third straight year of drought, and today’s snow survey is just one more piece of evidence that we urgently need comprehensive water reform to protect our economy, our jobs, our communities and our quality of life,” said Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in a recent press release, praising water providers who have already enacted mandatory or voluntary rationing.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, for instance, recently proposed a strengthened water conservation ordinance that would place a penalty on residents who use more than recommended. If affirmed by the Board of Water and Power Commissioners and Los Angeles City Council, it will be the first time that L.A. residents are asked to ration their water.
AARON BRUNER can be reached at email@example.com.