Leak of the Week: California is in a drought

Believe it or not, California is in a drought. Yes, a cursory glance at the water level in the state’s reservoirs and rivers – or simply a peek out any Sacramento window during the past week – would certainly suggest otherwise.

But the state is experiencing a drought, according to Executive Order S-06-08.

It says so in the 16th paragraph – right after all the paragraphs beginning with “WHEREAS” describing the dire scope of water shortage.

In that 16th paragraph, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaims a “condition of statewide drought.”

The former governor then directs the state Department of Water Resources to “take immediate action to address the serious drought conditions and water delivery limitations that currently exist in California.” And then, in some detail, Schwarzenegger enumerates those actions.

None of which, at the moment, are being taken.

That’s because conditions have changed significantly since Feb. 27, 2009 when the executive order was issued.

But executive orders remain in force until a new one supercedes.

“Thus far, the season’s precipitation and snow pack has been a welcome change and our office continues to work closely with the Natural Resources Agency and Department of Water Resources to monitor the state’s water conditions,” said Evan Westrup, a spokesman for Gov. Jerry Brown.

“Monitoring” suggests the Democratic governor – whose hands are more than full with the state’s budget mess – is unlikely to issue a new executive order in the near term declaring the drought to be over and eight-hour lawn watering in Palm Desert may resume.

So, officially, California is experiencing what amounts to a very wet drought.

“Hydrologically speaking, we’re not in a drought,” said Water Resources spokesman Ted Thomas, dryly.

Rainfall in California, from October 1 through Feb. 28, was 125 percent of the 10-year average for this time of year. Put another way, 25 percent higher than normal.

Two years ago at this time, rainfall was 20 percent below normal, the water content of the snow pack was 20 percent below average and the amount of water in the state’s reservoirs was 30 percent below average.

During the current state water year, which runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, the water content of this year’s snow pack is 125 percent of the average for this time of year. Because of that, run-off from April through July is expected to be 10 percent above average.

“Not that everybody is necessarily going to get all the water they want but with the snow pack we have that’s a pretty firm supply,” said Maury Roos, the department’s long-time chief hydrologist. “And reservoir storage is up, that’s the big difference from last year.”

 The amount of water in reservoirs – about 25.3 million acre-feet – is 10 percent above average.

An acre-foot – the amount of water to cover 1 acre to a depth of 1 foot – is roughly 326,000 gallons, a little more than twice what a family of four uses in one year.

Snow pack water content and rainfall in 2011 are far higher in individual parts of the state, which is divided into 10 hydrologic regions.

On the southeastern side of the Sierra, for example, the snow pack’s water content is 65 percent above average and precipitation is 120 percent above average, according to the department’s March 1 Summary of Water Conditions, which contains both a monthly and annual update for the state’s water year.

As the name implies, the 16-page report catalogues how much water California has in its reservoirs and snow pack and predicts the amount of run-off that will occur after the peak rainy season, which usually ends in March.

“February was a month of contrasts,” the summary begins.

“The first half was abnormally warm and dry. The second half was cold and wet with late month storms producing snow in foothill areas not used to seeing much of the white stuff.

“Precipitation statewide was near average for the month and the mountain snow pack registered about a 25 percent gain for the month, which was about the normal increment for February, yielding a pack which is still well above average for this time of the year.”

In contrast, the opening paragraph of the March 1, 2009 summary reads:
“After a poor start to the water year, a couple of major storm events boosted precipitation and snow pack amounts to improve water conditions from last month’s grim outlook.

However, more precipitation is needed to restore storage levels to near normal levels. Absent a very wet remaining spring quarter, shortages in water supplies for some areas of California are certain.”

Two years ago, water in Lake Shasta and Lake Oroville was 40 percent and 45 percent below average, respectively.  Statewide, this year, water in the 150-odd reservoirs the state monitors is 10 percent above average.

Shasta is 12 percent above average this year. Oroville is 6 percent above. Water is being spilled from both reservoirs because they are part of the region’s flood protection system and so must create room in case of a sudden influx of water.   

This year, the State Water Project says its deliveries will meet 70 percent of demand. Two years ago, the state water project said its initial allocation was 15 percent of demand, although that climbed to 30 by April.

The federal Central Valley Project this year has promised a minimum of 50 percent to those with the most junior contracts for its water. Those with more senior contracts, as most did during the drought, will get their full allotment.

In 2009, the Central Valley Project’s initial allocation was zero, although that eventually climbed to 10 percent.

Looking at different parts of the state, Los Angeles, which, like other localities, measures its water year from July 1 to June 30, has had nearly 16” of rain through March 15. The norm for the same period is 12.6” and the average annual rainfall is 15.1”, according to the National Weather Service.

Riverside has had 10.4” of rain through March 15. Its norm for the period is 8.4.” San Francisco has had nearly 16” of rain through March 15. It’s normal for the same period is 17”.

With Mother Nature giving the state and local water agencies a drought reprieve, environmentalists and water experts say the state should take advantage and tackle longer term solutions to water supply.

“During droughts, agencies tend to focus on the short-term, just getting through the next 12 months and then, traditionally, when things get better the state steps back,” said Barry Nelson, a senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“When it’s wetter is the time the state needs to focus on long-term water solutions. You can only build them in years like this.”

One long-term solution is championing a mandate requiring regions of the state that receive water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to become more self-sufficient and wean themselves from delta dependency.

Pushing water self-reliance – the policy of the Department of Water Resources for several years – was included in a package of bills approved in November 2009 to improve the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta ecosystem and provide more reliability to the state’s water deliveries.

“The smart thing to do is develop alternative water supplies,” said Cynthia Koehler, California water legislative director for the Environ
mental Defense Fund. “More conservation. Better groundwater management. Recycling of gray water, where appropriate.”

Koehler said just because the drought has ended doesn’t mean Californians suddenly will become profligate in their water use. She says people have a “drought memory” and tend to continue water efficiencies even when water becomes more plentiful.

And even if the memory fades, some conservation will remain.

“It’s not like you’re going to change out the low-flow toilet and go back to the old when the drought’s over,” said Koehler.

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