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California Drought Update: How Low Can the Reservoirs Go?

| March 25, 2014
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Lake Oroville, the largest reservoir in the State Water Project, is pictured on Jan. 18, 2014, the day it hit its lowest point during the current drought. (Dan Brekke/KQED)

Lake Oroville, the largest reservoir in the State Water Project, is pictured on Jan. 18, 2014, the day it hit its lowest point during the current drought. (Dan Brekke/KQED)

It doesn’t take a drought to become obsessed wondering how much water is in California’s reservoirs, but it helps. Water levels in the extensive network of artificial lakes is edging up as the state awaits the arrival of a lackluster Pacific storm on Tuesday — with the possibility of a stronger system arriving for the weekend. But reservoirs are perilously low as the state nears the end of what’s typically the wet season and faces a long, long stretch before fall rains can be expected.

If you are a reservoir obsessive, you probably already know about the state Department of Water Resources Daily Reservoir Storage Summary. The summary doesn’t show you everything that’s happening with California water. Rather, it’s a quick take on 44 key storage sites, from Shasta Lake and Lake Oroville — the two biggest reservoirs in the state and crucial to Central Valley farms and cities from the South Bay to Southern California — to relatively modest-sized sites like Hetch Hetchy, the key reservoir for residents of San Francisco and most of the Peninsula.

Today’s summary shows the 44 reservoirs collectively at 62 percent of normal for the date. That may not sound so bad — hey, it’s nearly two-thirds of what we usually have, right? To understand how scary that level is, you need to look at the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which typically holds at least half of all the water that will flow to the state’s farms and cities each year. DWR’s daily summary of snow-water equivalents shows the snowpack at just one-fourth of its normal level. With so little water stored in the mountains, runoff will be much lower than normal and the reservoirs won’t see the typical spring-early summer surge. Those lake levels we see today? They won’t be improving much over the next month or so, and then we’ll begin drawing them down as we move into summer.

How did we get here?

KQED’s The Lowdown blog has published a cool visualization by web developer Victor Powell. It depicts the rise and fall of the key reservoirs during rainy years (2010 and 2011) and the current series of dry, drier and driest years (2012-2014) and dramatizes how low the water level is at a key point in the season. Click on the screen grab below for the full interactive visualization.

Reservoir Levels

And, some other drought notes:

  • According to The Sacramento Bee, the city of Sacramento has issued 350 violations to drought-flouters. Sacramento has enacted no-water days because of the drought, of which many residents are unaware. A first violation gets the water users a written notice explaining the rules. The second violation results in a $50 fine; the third costs $200 and subsequent infractions are $1,000 each.
  • The San Jose Mercury News is reporting that Silicon Valley’s largest water provider, the Santa Clara Valley Water District, is cutting allocations of treated drinking water by 20 percent through the end of the year. The notified cities and companies, which provide water to about 1.5 million people, will now be forced to pump more groundwater, urge residents to conserve or tap into other water sources. In addition, about 100 farmers, golf courses and other property owners won’t be allowed to use the untreated water they typically have access to.
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    About the Author ()

    Dan Brekke has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything. Reach Dan Brekke at dbrekke@kqed.org.
    • Regenz

      I missed global warming, when CA rains were predicted to be much higher than normal. Oh well, can’t win em all.

      • Steve Jenkins

        5.1 quake last night….the fault is tearing slowly. The gulf of California formed in the same way. It has begun….within 18 months California will be in the sea. You can copy and paste my post and read it in one year.

    • James

      Watch what’s happening as the El Nino develops!

      • Steve Jenkins

        CORRECT!

    • Steve Jenkins

      The birdbrains that STILL DENY CLIMATE CHANGE….will BELIEVE and no longer deny by the end of this year….remember this post.

      • Psalmon

        Will you remember it Jenk? Or like the “Ice Free Arctic” predictions or the +6 degrees by 2020 predictions, or the earlier spring and children not knowing what snow is predictions, will you just insist you meant next next year? Or will it be like the global cooling/next ice age predictions that now people like yourself claim never happened, oh that was all a media thing? Or will you come up with some other excuse like Hiroshima bombs hiding at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, or climate science is about the long term, not one year’s prediction.

        I guarantee you this, when people can not heat their homes because electricity prices have skyrocketed after we’ve shut down every viable power plant in the country, and food prices have skyrocketed because we refuse water to Farmers, I think people will remember your post. Meanwhile you keep hoping for disasters and the suffering of your fellow man.

        • Steve Jenkins

          CLIMATE CHANGE is about extremes sociopath. Keep listening to snake oil millionaires on fox news pal. CHRIST CLEARLY STATED THAT THESE DISASTERS WILL HAPPEN AS THE END TIMES APPROACH! Man never learns and you are a perfect example of why history continues to repeat itself…The Tornadoes this May and June will be the most prolific and most intense in history. The earthquakes will continue in California and soon the entire state will be decimated. I do not say these things because I want them to happen I say them because Christ said they will occur. Your skewed facts you have given above are typical. ONCE AGAIN…by the end of this year, you will not only believe i Climate change, you will be begging for mercy. Mankind is suffering because of GREED AND STUPIDITY and you epitomize both of these traits. You do not state why electric prices continue to increase…DICK CHENEY IS THE REASON. HIS 35 YEARS OF PUBLIC SERVICE ensured that energy companies can rape and pillage the entire globe and keep families and children hungry while he lives with his new heart in luxury. God has made a FOOL-PROOF SYSTEM PAL in that no one gets out of here alive and all have to account for how they lived. You can copy and post everything I wrote and by the end of the year you can read it again. I know evil is going to respond and that is why I am writing with such great firmness. You are evil, sadistic and a sociopath. Rush Limbaugh and Hannity will help you as climate change accelerates and you cannot feed your family sociopath…God help you. Begone!

    • zen

      All pure propaganda…there is no drought! Don’t be fooled by the photo ….from….January! It’s been raining in California since the beginning of February.
      Fraud. Also, 2011 was considered a major drought, until of course, it rained. Google: 2011 drought caliornia. These authors don’t know how to read what the normal rainfall and reservoir fill is supposed to be.

      You are busted for propaganda and dated photos!! You won’t show anything current, will you.

      • Dan Brekke

        The date and the fact that the picture shows the reservoir at its lowest level of the season is pretty clearly disclosed, don’t you think? The piece acknowledges the fact the reservoirs are up from where they were back then. It also mentions that the real concern is what’s happening with the snowpack and river flows, both of which are critically low. And we’ve given links to the current information with a suggestion readers should check those out. So, it’s not clear to me what you think we might be hiding.

        • zen

          A current photo should be used. This is hoaxing.
          They are not just up, they are way, way up.
          Why don’t you break the news instead of dragging your feet?

    • zen

      Major reservoirs are approaching 70 per cent of normal. It’s raining. Grow some, and actually give a real report.

    • Psalmon

      Oroville is 45 feet higher today than the picture you have there. In addition, Oroville has been BELOW that level (shown in the picture) in 1991, 1992, 1993, 2003, 2008, 2009, and 2010. So in the last 24 years, Oroville has seen a picture WORSE than that in 7.

      Amazing, 1/3 times it’s below average. 1/3 times it’s above average. 1/3 times it’s average.

    • wasamatau

      I see that stats show that over 50% of the annual water supply comes
      from runoff from the snow pack in the Sierra. The snow pack is only at a
      cumulative 25% of normal for April 1 and not much (if any) more is
      going to fall. With reservoirs only at 62% and only 25% of normal snow
      melt to come…. that’s a problem. How big? Bigger than it had to be due
      to the underhanded workings of the vary agencies we trusted to control
      and protect our water supply. Read: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/02/07/the-emptying-of-northern-california-reservoirs/

    • Psalmon

      After some research you really should compare 2014 to 1990, 91, 92. Right now 2014 is in the middle of this pack which were the 4th, 5th, and 6th drought years in a row respectively. Farmers got water allocations of 50%, 25, 25 in each of those years, but this year 0. It’s not consistent. It’s raining. Chains on I80 past Colfax at 2,400 feet today. BTW snow packs are rising as well now back above 1977 worst year.