Drought-stricken state gets drenched, but not enough to ease historic shortfall

California got some much-needed precipitation over the weekend, but not nearly enough to ameliorate the state's persistent drought, weather and water experts said.

Long-awaited storms in Northern and Southern California dumped several inches of snow and rain on parched mountains, fields and cities. Los Angeles saw its precipitation nearly quadruple over the past week. After receiving 4.24 inches of rain since Thursday, the city is now at 5.5 inches since July 2013 -- still just half its normal rainfall.

State and federal water managers cautioned that much of the state is still so far below normal that there is almost no way to recover this year.

"The rain and snow are helping, but we are in such a deep deficit (both precipitation and storage) that there is virtually no chance we will have a normal runoff/storage/delivery year," said Ted Thomas, spokesman for the state Department of Water Resources. "Drought conditions remain, only slightly dented."

The state's monthly snow survey, taken Thursday in the Sierra Nevada, found that precipitation had increased water content in the state's snowpack to 24 percent of average, up from 22 percent earlier in the week.


"We welcome the late storms, but they are not enough to end the drought," said DWR Director Mark Cowin.

Thomas said it would take about two weeks to calculate the amount of runoff expected from the current storms and that he couldn't say whether farms, cities and others that depend on the State Water Project's canals and reservoirs would see more water. The state announced in January that it would deliver none of the water that it usually does to supply 25 million people and 700,000 acres of farmland (E&ENews PM, Jan. 31).

"It's too early to say if we will be able to increase deliveries," Thomas said. "Obviously, this is not a normal year, and unless there is a dramatic turnaround, many farms and communities will be short of water, especially during the peak demand period this summer."

U.S. could increase deliveries

Federal officials managing other parts of the state's water infrastructure, however, said that the storms could allow them to send more water to farmers grappling with record-low projected supplies.

"We've stored an additional 160,000 acre-feet just from the past couple weeks of systems that have come through," said Louis Moore, spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the Central Valley Project.

The CVP is a sprawling system of canals and reservoirs on five rivers, including the massive Shasta Lake, which can store 4.5 million acre-feet of water. As of yesterday, it contained about 1.8 million acre-feet, 40 percent of its capacity.

That's a slight increase from last month, when Reclamation issued historic cuts in water allocations to farmers. Reclamation notified senior contractors on the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers last weekend that they should expect 40 percent of their regular deliveries this year, the first time that deliveries will have fallen below 75 percent, the minimum guaranteed in their contracts with the federal government (Greenwire, Feb. 19).

Systemwide, the CVP had 4.7 million acre-feet in storage as of Friday, 59 percent of the 15-year average. The rain could allow Reclamation to adjust allocations, which could happen in the next couple of weeks, Moore said.

"It's typically done on a monthly basis, but knowing we had this kind of difficult allocation, we're going to do that sooner," he said.

Water agencies that supply farmers said that more storage would have helped carry water over from the 2010-11 year, which was wet. Reservoir operators had to release floodwaters in that year because their lakes were full; if they had had more room, the water could have been available now.

"That water, had it been stored, would have helped groundwater conditions, and some presumably would have been available as surface supplies this year, as well," said Ron Jacobsma, general manager of the Friant Water Authority, which is facing an allocation of none of its typical supply of 1.2 million acre-feet from the CVP. "The rain/snow is helpful. However, the overall state water supply situation is still very critical."

State girds for more water stress

On Saturday, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed a bill with $687 million in funding for emergency drinking water, food assistance, flood protection, water efficiency and water storage projects. The state Legislature fast-tracked the bill, passing it Thursday, eight days after first announcing it.

Money in the measure comes from existing funding sources, including $549 million from voter-approved bonds and $40 million from sales of greenhouse gas credits in the state's cap-and-trade program.

It would pay for food and housing for people who have lost work as a result of the drought, as well as projects that capture stormwater, distribute recycled water, manage groundwater, reduce the risk of wildfires or otherwise conserve water (Greenwire, Feb. 28).

On Thursday, the state Public Utilities Commission ordered investor-owned water utilities to ask their customers to reduce their water use by 20 percent in line with Brown's January emergency drought declaration.

Under the ruling, large investor-owned water companies will have to include bill inserts or direct mailings asking their customers to reduce consumption. If conditions worsen, mandatory rationing could be next.

"Like the rain this weekend, this package is badly needed to help mitigate the effects of the historic drought California is facing. But also like the rain, we need to see more," said Assembly Speaker John Perez (D). "That's why every Californian needs to continue to conserve water, and there's more work to do on storage, water quality improvement and environmental protections. If we don't act now, the problems we face will only get worse."

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