Amid rains, drought fears loom

A rain storm floats over California. (Photo: Serkan Senturk, via Shutterstock)

After a historically wet season last year, relatively little precipitation has fallen this year in California during two of the three historically wettest months. Officials are urging stricter water conservation and caution drier months ahead.

After last week’s rains, the Sierra snowpack — a critical factor in water availability — climbed to just 39 percent of normal. More rain is coming, but the question remains: Will it be enough to prevent a drought?

Fingers are crossed.

“It’s vital that water conservation efforts remain consistent regardless of the year’s precipitation.” — Karla Nemeth

Earlier in February, the Department of Water Resources measured snowpack levels in the Phillips Station area of the Sierra Nevada 90 miles east of Sacramento. A little over 2 inches was reported in the monthly survey, or about 14 percent of the average for that time of year since 1964.

In early January, the snowpack levels alsow were dismal — about 24 percent of the average.

“California experiences the most variable weather in the nation,” said DWR Director Karla Nemeth. “It’s vital that water conservation efforts remain consistent regardless of the year’s precipitation.

On average, the snowpack supplies about 30 percent of California’s water needs as it melts in the spring and early summer. The greater the snowpack water content, the greater the likelihood California’s reservoirs will receive enough runoff to meet the state’s water demand in later months.

George Kostyrko, a spokesperson for the State Water Resources Control Board, said agencies like SWRCB and DWR will continue focusing on water conservation, as they did during the drought.

The board met Feb. 20 to hear from the public and consider adopting new regulations for water conservation.

“We are coming off of what was the wettest year on record, last year.” — John Leahigh 

The proposed restrictions would prohibit using potable water to wash sidewalks and driveways, and using hoses without automatic shut-off nozzles to wash motor vehicles. Also barred: irrigating turf and ornamental landscape during and within 48 hours following measurable rainfall, and hotels and motels would be prohibited from washing towels and linens daily without providing guests the option of using them again.

Kostyrko said under drought conditions, restaurants and bars would be forbidden to automatically offer guests water, unless asked to do so.

A fine of $500 will be given to those who do not follow the regulations, Kostyrko said, but most water districts will reach out beforehand and give a warning before any action is taken.

John Leahigh, principal engineer for the State Water Project, said last month that this year’s precipitation levels are dismal. “We are coming off of what was the wettest year on record, last year,” he said.

“This is the third driest on record since 1977 and 1991,” Leahigh added, in regards to precipitation in the Sacramento area, and most of California.

“This is a very ugly picture,” he said “If the current pattern holds for this year… three out of the last five years having the lowest three snowpacks in the entire historical record,” he added.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts below-normal precipitation conditions for much of California.

“Either this represents a statistical fluke or, more concerning, we are looking at some other, longer term pattern change,” he said.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor for California, as of Feb. 13, about 80 percent of the state is defined as abnormally dry, or drought condition.

“Just three months ago, 25 percent of the state would be characterized as those categories.” Leahigh added. “That’s a pretty dramatic turnaround.”

Looking ahead, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts below-normal precipitation conditions for much of California. Weak storm systems and dry weather are predicted the next several months, Leahigh said.  

State reservoirs have above average storage to date, Leahigh said. “That is not the whole picture, we rely heavily on the snowpack,” he added. “There is no snowpack to back these surface storages up.”

“We are being very conservative with that surface storage,” he said.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced that most farmers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta who get water from the federal Central Valley Project will only receive 20 percent of their requested allocation this year.

David Murillo, Reclamation’s Mid-Pacific regional director said there are many factors to consider to determine Central Valley Project  allocations.

“Hydrologic conditions, reservoir storage levels, water quality requirements, water rights priority, contractual obligations, and endangered species protections,” Murillo said. “All of these are taken into account with the goal of exercising all authorities available to us to maximize water supplies.”

The Control Board also is adopting proposed regulations to recycle water, even some may come from sewage treatment facilities.

“It will be cleaned so it won’t pose a health risk,” Kostyrko said.


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