With the latest snow survey falling on April Fool’s Day, it was no joke that despite the recent storms, the state continues to face a water shortage.
“This is almost a mispicture,” said Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Survey for the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), as he stood knee-deep in soft snow.
“This snow course was basically bare two days ago,” he said. “All the snow we measured just now came mostly last night and illustrates the difference between a good water year and a bad water year.”
At Phillips Station, Gehrke and his staff measured a snow depth of 33.7 inches with a water content of 8.1 inches, which is 29 percent of the long-term average for measurements on April 1.
“However, we need another 20 inches,” said Gehrke. “We should be getting, in a good water year, eight to 10 of these storms that we had in the last couple of days, whereas this year we only had two or three. And that makes all the difference between good snow accumulation and a marginal accumulation.”
“It’s very picturesque and looks like a lot of snow, but in reality it’s not,” he said. “It will help soil moisture, but the runoff will be minor. Once we get through April 1, except for a few odd years, generally the snow season is over. Basically we’re finished with any real accumulation of more snow. Reservoir storage is now at three-fourths of average, so this will eat further into reservoir percentage. It’s a cause of great concern for all water users throughout the state.”
Oddly enough, the recent storms may actually make the fire season worse, according to Gehrke, as it will encourage the growth of fire fuels that will go bone dry once the moisture is gone from the soil. On the bright side, it’s a huge boost for the local economy, he said. “People are going to be ditching work left and right to come up here skiing and snowboarding.”
Gehrke said the snowpack measurement on April 1 is so important because that’s generally the point of maximum snow accumulation. From this point on, the snow will start melting.
A more complete picture of the snow pack accumulation throughout the state is expected on April 3 once all the manual snow survey measurements are in.
With this year possibly being the third driest on record, Gehrke said the drought will not only affect water use but the price of energy and food. “I expect quite a bit of land allowed to go fallow because of the unavailability or increased price of water. Growers may shift water to permanent crops — tree and nuts — to keep them alive.”
The Department of Water Resources (DWR) reported April 3 that manual and electronic readings – at the time of year the snowpack normally is at its peak before melting into streams and reservoirs — record the snowpack’s statewide water content at just 32 percent of average.
Electronic readings indicate that snowpack water content in the state’s northern mountains is 23 percent of normal. The electronic readings for the central and southern Sierra are 38 and 31 percent of normal, respectively, according to DWR.
Lake Oroville in Butte County, the State Water Project’s principal reservoir, is at only 49 percent of its 3.5 million acre-foot capacity. Shasta Lake, the federal Central Valley Project’s largest reservoir, is at 48 percent of its 4.5 million acre-foot capacity. San Luis Reservoir is at 42 percent of its 2 million acre-foot capacity due both to dry weather and Delta pumping restrictions to protect salmon and Delta smelt.
With no relief in sight, in January DWR set its allocation of State Water Project water at zero. The allocation has not been increased since then.
DWR said that while 2013 was the driest calendar year on record for much of California, last-minute November and December storms in 2012 – the first year of the current drought – replenished major reservoirs to somewhat mitigate dry conditions. That comfortable reservoir cushion is now gone.
This year’s final manual survey is scheduled for May 1.
Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or [email protected] Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.