Snow Survey May Portend a Dry 2013

Skimpy Sierra snowpack may take a while to show up in water supplies

snow Tahoe Sierra California water

After a record dry December, there's finally snow on the ground near Soda Springs, at Lake Tahoe.

This morning’s snow survey (PDF) didn’t turn up any big surprises. As remote sensors foreshadowed, water content in the Sierra snowpack is 37% of normal for this time of year, and less than a quarter of the average for April, which is when the snowpack is usually at its peak before it begins melting and filling up California’s reservoirs.

What’s worrisome about that, according to Jeanine Jones, Interstate Resources Manager at the Department of Water Resources, is that about half of California’s annual precipitation typically falls between December and February, months that are mostly already behind us. “So where we are this year is: November was dry, December was close to record dry, January was maybe half of average,” Jones told me. “And currently the forecast for the first  ten days or so of February is essentially dry.” Continue reading

California Storms: A Dent in the Drought

Spillway at Alpine Lake on Mt. Tamalpais. File photo: Marin Municipal Water District

Spillway at Alpine Lake on Mt. Tamalpais. File photo: Marin Municipal Water District

A version of this post also appears on Dan Brekke’s personal blog, Infospigot. Also see our updated map of reservoir conditions at the end of this post.

By Dan Brekke

Is California’s drought over? OK, let’s take a step back. Yes, I realize one could debate whether the last three years in California actually constitute a drought. But that’s a discussion for another time. For now, I think everyone can agree that we’ve had lower-than-average precipitation for the past three years.

The only reason to ask the question is that, after the first half of the wet season delivered only spotty rain, we’ve had a pretty solid week of downpours. Water is sluicing into our reservoirs, and the hills are greening up. Some counties, like Marin, have water tumbling down the spillways. All of that is a sign of what we think winter should be here.

My favorite water statistic from last week: when the storms were at their heaviest around Lake Shasta, California’s biggest reservoir, water was flowing into the lake at about 500,000 gallons per second. That’s 1.5 acre feet, or about enough for two-to-three “average” households for a year, every second.*

Amazing numbers like that aside, the people who get paid to think about whether the drought is over say “not yet.” Last week, Quest managing editor Paul Rogers wrote a good summary of the situation, for The San Jose Mercury News.

Rogers’ story does contain one bit of quirky California thinking about rain and water, though. He quotes a well established local meteorologist, Jan Null, about where we stand in terms of normal rainfall, saying: “This is a great start, but we need to keep it going.”

Of course, Null recognizes better than most that the amount of rain we get and when we get it is out of anyone’s control. But once you understand the importance of water in California, once you get how crucial the winter rains are, there’s a score-keeping aspect to weather-watching here. It becomes second nature to study the rain gauge and the seasonal precipitation table as an index of performance, a reflection on whether a great collective goal is being attained. Lots of rain means we’re doing well (and that we can put the complexities of water supply out of our minds). A dry spell means we’re failing (and the prospect of hell to pay, or at least the strong possibility of stringent conservation measures).

But in reality, there’s no performance going on. The rain is the rain, and the climate is the climate. California’s rainfall is famously variable. Dry spells can be counted on and the current run of dry years is the third we’ve had since I arrived in Berkeley in the 1970s.

My first California winter, 1976-’77, was bone-dry and was in fact the second year of the driest two-year period ever recorded here. A decade later, from roughly 1986 through 1992, we had another run of dry years. And if our winter rains were to stop now, we’d be in the fourth year of drier-than-normal years. In between these periods we’ve had average years and very wet years and years that didn’t quite hit the average. That might not be too different from anywhere else. The reason it’s a bigger deal here than it might be in, say, Wisconsin, is that we have a six-month dry season. We need to store water to get through that. We have 37 million people and millions and millions acres of farmland that need water, whether it’s falling from the sky or not. Thus the need to believe we can wish the rain to keep going during the wet season and the tendency to feel disappointment when the winter turns into a string of dry, sunny days.

*500,000 gallons per second. Here’s the arithmetic: California Department of Water Resources figures show that in the hour between noon and 1 p.m. on Tuesday, January 19, net inflow into the lake was 66,288 cubic feet per second. That’s the highest inflow figure for any single hour that week. One cubic foot equals 7.48 gallons. 66,288*7.48 = 495,834.24 gallons. One acre-foot = 325,851 gallons. And 495,834.24/325,851 = 1.52 acre-feet. Per second. For the entire 24 hours of the 19th, Lake Shasta’s inflow averaged just over 1 acre-foot a second.

View KQED: California Reservoir Watch in a larger map

State Water Deliveries May Set New Low

State water officials have announced they are likely to release a record-low allocation of water to cities and farms next year– just five percent of what water contractors have requested. Though still preliminary, it’s the lowest allocation since the State Water Project began delivering water back in 1967.

The announcement may have caught some by surprise, since Department of Water Resources (DWR) data would seem to show reservoirs at higher levels than last year at this time, with major reservoirs at 69% of storage capacity, compared to 57% last year.

When I asked DWR Deputy Director Susan Simms about it, even she was stumped at first. But then she called me back to say that the data includes both federal and state reservoirs, and the state’s storage levels at both Lake Oroville and San Luis Reservoir (shared with the feds) is actually lower than last year (52% and 48% of “normal,” respectively). And, she says, the state has to contend with pumping restrictions to protect both salmon and delta smelt this time around.

DWR Director Lester Snow told reporters this morning that there’s nothing in the recently passed bundle of state water bills that can provide any immediate relief. And if you thought the prospect of increased precipitation from El Nino could save the day, don’t get out the umbrella just yet. David Rizzardo, Chief of the state’s Snow Survey section, estimates there’s only a 50-60% chance of a stronger El Nino kicking in this year. December and January will be the most telling months–but precipitation from El Nino would likely be concentrated in the southern half of the state. Officials say that would provide more “flexibility” in meeting water needs systemwide, but all of California’s biggest reservoirs are located in the northern part of the state.

December water delivery estimates almost always get a boost once it starts snowing. Last year’s initial projection was 15%, and that was later revised upward, eventually to 40 percent. Snow called today’s estimate “very conservative.”

If you think the five percent figure is supposed to scare us, it is. Water officials want to send a message that Californians need to be prepared to conserve. The state’s drought coordinator, Wendy Martin, just returned from a water tour in Australia, where she says she saw water-saving measures in place that California has yet to fully develop: storm water recapture, water recycling, and more. Martin also observed that the Australians now wish that they’d taken the epic drought of the last several years more seriously, sooner.

River Diaries, Part 3: Encounters with Civilization

Here are some more journal entries from participants in the Paddle to the Sea project, to raise awareness of river and water supply issues. Two paddlers have pledged to go all the way, from the Sierra to San Francisco Bay. At this point, they’ve descended from the high country and are preparing to traverse California’s Great Valley.

On the tamed lower Tuolumne. Photo: Jesse Raeder

On the tamed lower Tuolumne. Photo: Jesse Raeder

Emilio Martinez: Don Pedro Reservoir & Turlock Lake

After the whitewater thrills of the upper Tuolumne, Don Pedro Reservoir was exciting in the same way that a putting green is exciting: smooth and well-groomed, and so accommodating to the well-mannered sportsman. With the whine of the fishing engine accompanying a distinct lack of visual variety in the blond hills, we boated for two hours towards the Dam, then hiked Bonds Flat Road, then J59 for 2 more hours in the near hundred degree heat, examining road kill for diversion.  Besides the houseboats and odd floating trash, there was not a whole lot to feed the river-bound soul.

So it was with a complete sense that all the excitement that the River Tuolumne had to offer had been expended during the upper portion that I stepped awkwardly into my canoe on the 27th of May. I had already complacently decided that the River was something of a “has been” and would be nothing now but a gentle, rolling presence.

What a complete and arrogant assumption of what the River is, without any knowledge of the true meaning of that word as Nature herself uses it.

The River, in short, thrashed both my thesis–and companion Tim and I like the inconsequential beings that we are before the River’s sublime power and majesty: it slapped us upside the head with willow branches drenched in chilling waters, banged our thighs and knees with the fiberglass canoe we haughtily thought we’d master it with: instead, it made us respect it and fear it: precisely because we are mere visitors to its emerald green kingdom, our canoes so much jetsam and flotsam in its consciousness: in short,  the Tuolumne did everything it needed to do to show us how we must not underestimate Nature, but rather, protect one’s reverence and humility before it so that one can live and be nurtured by it.

Long live the River!

Looking for fish. Photo: Jesse Raeder

Looking for fish. Photo: Jesse Raeder

Owen Segerstrom: Don Pedro Reservoir

Today’s crossing of Don Pedro was an instructive microcosm of the damage that dams cause. While the former Tuolumne River Canyon rests under hundreds of feet of water, the remaining habitat is a virtual biological desert. Turkey vultures, mallards, and hatchery-raised fish are a far cry from the wildlife of an intact river system. What was once a salmon-bearing, thriving ecosystem sequestering untold millions of metric tons of carbon is now a layer of anaerobic matter at the bottom of the reservoir, the decomposition of which releases methane (a greenhouse gas that is orders of magnitude more potent that carbon dioxide) into the atmosphere.  [Editor’s note: The figure most quoted by scientists is that methane is about 20 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. In California, however, livestock and leakage from oil & gas operations are much bigger emitters of methane than natural decomposition from lakebeds].

Upon arrival at the dam, Emilio, Mason (a friend of mine from Kentucky who accompanied us) and I were presented with an interesting conundrum.  Despite indications to the contrary from National Geographic’s mapping database, there is no trail from the dam to the Old La Grange bridge.  After consulting a local ranger, we determined that the only way to walk this leg of our journey was on the side of Bonds Flat road and eventually J59 (approximately 7 miles).  The partially decomposed remains of a fox, whose life was ostensibly claimed by a motorist on the highway, were yet another sobering reminder of the human-caused chasm between a Mt. Lyell-to-the-Pacific river system and the Tuolumne’s current state.  We maintained morale by nicknaming this stretch of our sojourn the “great asphalt eddy of the T,” but the experience was nonetheless jarring.

After the experience at Don Pedro, the first section of the Lower Tuolumne was quite literally a breath of fresh air.  Heritage oaks, the call of an osprey from its nest along the river bank, and the water’s peaceful meander were a feast for the senses.  The integration of community advocacy groups throughout the valley is a hopeful sign for the future of freshwater consciousness, and the results of their efforts are evident.

Though anadromous fish passage beyond the Old La Grange Dam is still impossible, the efforts to address disastrous impacts on salmon populations (an unparalleled gauge of the health of a river ecosystem) between this impasse and the ocean are inspiring.  Salmon have been described as the conscience of a watershed, as they represent the lone upstream vector for ocean nutrients that have historically fertilized inland ecosystems.  The conscientious cooperation of central valley communities along the Tuolumne represents the utterly necessary prevention of local extinction of Chinook salmon.

[Editor’s Note: Here’s the latest biological opinion on California’s Chinook salmon and how it stands to affect water supplies.]

Turlock Lake to Waterford Park

Today’s paddle began with a conversation about the history of California river advocacy. As our group went through individual introductions, many of the participants recalled the (ultimately unsuccessful) efforts to prevent the damming of the Stanislaus River in the late 1970’s, including Mark DuBois chaining himself to a riverside boulder in protest.  While the beauty and avian abundance of yesterday’s journey punctuated the beginning of our day, reminders of the need to rekindle Mark’s passion quickly confronted us.  The soundscape for our lunch break was provided by an industrial gravel pit, the footprint of which has massively diverted the river channel.  As one volunteer pointed out, the beautiful hyacinth blooming in the pond adjacent to the pit were nonetheless a dubious indicator of the river’s ecological health.  The day culminated in a rousing gathering of Waterford’s riverfront restoration community at the local park,  A group of children enjoying a game based on answering questions about salmon presented hope that somewhere there is a young person who will carry Mark’s torch in defense of the Tuolumne’s continuity.

Our posts are running a bit behind the paddlers’ progress. In real time, they are set to cross San Francisco Bay today and conclude their journey tomorrow, with a celebration at Aquatic Park in San Francisco.

Sierra Snowpack Levels Below Normal

3151697945_495462fcb0_m.jpgYes, heavy snow closed Interstate 80 for several hours on Christmas, and true, four feet of snow fell on North Lake Tahoe in the days since then. But this season’s first snow survey reveals that California still has far to go to make up for two years of drought.  Teams from the Department of Water Resources (DWR) found that statewide the water content of the Sierra snowpack is still only 3/4 of where it should be this time of year.

Conducted today by teams across the state, the survey revealed snow water levels at 54% of normal for the northern Sierra, 76% for the central Sierra, and 99% for the southern Sierra.

Today’s numbers are an improvement over this time last year, when the water content for snow in the Sierra statewide was just 60% of normal, but they are not high enough, say DWR officials.

After two years of drought and last year’s driest spring on record, reservoirs across the state are far below normal levels. Lake Oroville, which we wrote about in the fall, contains less than half the amount of water that’s normal for this date.

The Sierra is going to have to see a lot more snow this winter if Californians want to avoid water restrictions and another big fire season come next summer.

Craig Miller reported on the snow survey on this morning’s broadcast of The California Report.

Use the player below to hear more about the current state of California’s water supply from Department of Water Resources Senior Meterologist Elissa Lynn.

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