California Winds Up “Wet” Season on the Dry Side

But communities that depend more on rain, less on the snowpack are looking good

Craig Miller

In mid-January, much of the Sierra remained snowless.

Despite what felt like a late-season deluge, this will go down as a dry winter in California’s record books.

The season’s final survey of the Sierra snowpack by California water officials confirms that even heavy spring rains and fresh mountain snow as recently as last week didn’t make up for a late start to the rainy season and one of the driest Decembers on record. Today’s survey finds water content of the mountain snow at just 40% of the long-term average. That puts four out of the last five years on the dry side, though last year was a gullywhumper.

What snow is up there is melting fast. A release from the Department of Water Resources said that, “electronic readings today show that California’s drier than usual mountain snowpack is steadily melting with warming spring weather.”

Key reservoirs are still flush from last winter’s heavy snows. The current level of Lake Oroville, the biggest single supply for the State Water Project (SWP), remains above normal. According to DWR Director Mark Cowin, “Reservoir storage will mitigate the impact of dry conditions on water supply this summer, but we have to plan for the possibility of a consecutive dry year in 2013.” If that happens, there will be little or no “carryover” storage to rescue thirsty towns and farms next summer.

DWR has pegged water deliveries to the 29 agencies on the SWP at “60 percent of the slightly more than 4 million acre-feet of SWP water requested this year. The last 100% allocation was in 2006.

For local water agencies more reliant on rainfall than the Sierra snowpack to fill their coffers, things are decidedly more upbeat.

“It looks like conditions have dramatically improved over just the last month,” says Jennifer Persike at the Association of California Water Agencies, which is still doing its own tally of spring supplies. She says a cursory check of water managers in Marin, Sonoma, and Monterey Counties, among others, is encouraging. “It does look like we are in much better position going into the summer,” says Persike, but her association stands firm by its usual conservation message: “California, rain or shine, you’ve gotta conserve water.”