As drought abates, lawmakers resume push for water

By Debra Kahn | 01/04/2017 01:10 PM EST

A rainy start to California’s traditional wet season has somewhat eased the state’s five-year drought, and more storms are on the way, state officials announced yesterday.

A rainy start to California’s traditional wet season has somewhat eased the state’s five-year drought, and more storms are on the way, state officials announced yesterday.

While above-average rainstorms have replenished major water supply reservoirs, snowfall, which provides runoff for farmers later in the year, is below average. State snow surveyors yesterday measured snowpack at 68 percent of normal for this time of year.

Water managers have issued conservative forecasts for deliveries but are optimistic conditions will improve, citing a set of snowstorms predicted to persist through next week. Snowpack provides about 30 percent of the state’s water supply.


"I can see us being potentially at average once that series of storms moves through," said Frank Gehrke, head of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys program, who conducted yesterday’s snow measurement at Phillips Station, Calif.

"I think it’s a very encouraging start to the winter, and certainly we’ve had other winters when [Phillips] has been basically a bare field," he said.

Whether the state emerges from winter in good shape largely depends on whether more precipitation falls as rain or snow.

More rain would overwhelm the reservoirs, requiring water managers to release some of their already-collected supplies. Snow would stay in the mountains as natural storage.

"A lot of it’s going to depend on how the [precipitation] occurs," Gehrke said. "Snow would be a better scenario than would rain."

House lawmakers are not taking any chances on a good water year to improve deliveries to agricultural and urban users in the southern half of the state.

Rep. David Valadao, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and 10 other California Republicans yesterday introduced H.R. 23 to adjust California and Westwide water policies.

The bill would go further than language the lawmakers inserted into last year’s Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, S. 612, signed last month by President Obama.

Among other things, the bill would reduce the cost of water-delivery contracts and amend the 1992 Central Valley Project Improvement Act to give users more authority over how restoration funds are spent.

"While we were able to implement temporary provisions in the 114th Congress, a complete and long-term agreement is still needed," Valadao said. "My bill, the GROW Act, will enact policies to expand our water infrastructure and allow for more water conveyance while protecting the water rights of users across the state."

Water customers and environmentalists used yesterday’s snow survey to advocate for state-level policy reforms. A proposal by Gov. Jerry Brown (D) currently going through the permitting process would send deliveries through tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to avoid being forced to curtail pumping when endangered fish are in the system.

"As the majority of California is still experiencing severe drought, our 2017 water supply outlook will be determined by our ability to capture supplies when river flows are high," said Terry Erlewine, general manager of the State Water Contractors.

Environmentalists said that with more precipitation falling as rain rather than snow, the state should change its rules governing releases from the reservoirs to prioritize storage, as well as flood control.

"Climate change means California’s current water system is becoming obsolete," said Juliet Christian-Smith, a climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.