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CA Drought – Reservoirs Update: Low, and Getting Lower

By Denise Valenzuela

Posted in

In this post we take a closer look at the states reservoirs – their currently status and outlook.  Right now they don’t look good. Here is a quick rundown of how we got to where we are and what we should prepare for in the future.

So, we started this season’s water-watching in December with an eye to what early winter storms were doing to replenish the state’s critically low water reservoirs. We all know what’s happened since:

A wet December followed by one of the driest Januaries on record.  In February, a couple of nice shots of rain in Northern California, with scant precipitation farther south.

And then March. It’s not one of California’s Big Three months for precipitation. But in 1991, an occasion that water-watchers recall with increasing wistfulness, March produced such a bounty of rain and snow that it’s still known as a miracle.

A week before the end of the month, it’s clear we’ll witness no miracle this time. What we’re seeing instead is nothing short of shocking. The April 1 snowpack, to be officially reported next week, will be the lowest on record. And “lowest on record” doesn’t quite convey how extreme the situation really is.

Last year, the “snow-water equivalent” in the thin blanket of white covering California’s mountains stood at a shade under 25 percent of its historic average. That beat the record, a hair over 25 percent, set during the severe drought season of 1976-77.

And this year’s snowpack?

The network of electronic sensors sending in reports from highland locations from the Trinity Alps down to the southern Sierra is showing that statewide, the snowpack is at 9 percent of average — not even half of where it was last year, when it was at its record low.

At least one of the state’s 10 biggest reservoirs — the mammoth New Melones Lake, on the Stanislaus River — may be emptied entirely before next fall’s hoped-for rains. New Melones, which is backed up by a dam of the same name operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, supplies water for farmers and cities in the northeastern San Joaquin Valley; some of the water is also used to maintain flows on the Stanislaus for threatened chinook salmon and steelhead.

The situation at New Melones is not unique. Although December’s heavy rains and a handful of big storms since then did bolster supplies at the state’s biggest artificial lakes, Shasta and Oroville, their levels remain far below normal — 72 percent and 61 percent respectively. With the state’s mountain ranges virtually bare of snow, there’s no prospect for spring runoff that would add to those lakes’ supply.

At this point, none of the above really rates as news, and all of us will be living with the consequences in the months to come, and perhaps far longer.

Part of the standard California water lecture is to talk about our “frozen reservoir” in the mountains — a reference to the fact that anywhere between a third and a half of the water we use each year falls as snow, melts gradually as the weather warms, then comes tumbling down to our valleys as clear, cold water.

So, that’s not happening this year. Regardless of what the statistical summaries say about our reservoirs — our big Northern California lakes are still in good shape relative to last year, though far below average for the date — the near-total absence of snow means California, its 38 million people and its giant farm economy are headed into unknown territory.

Unknown, except that it will be very dry.

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