California on brink of ‘worst drought in modern history’

To no one’s surprise, the California Department of Water Resources’ (DWR) second snow survey of the winter season indicates snow water content is far below normal for the date; 61 percent of average for the state.

“The low precipitation in January and snowpack results from today’s survey indicate California is heading for a third dry year,” said DWR Director Lester Snow. “We may be at the start of the worst California drought in modern history. It’s imperative for Californians to conserve water immediately at home and in their businesses.”

In a meeting of Westlands Water District growers near Five Points, Calif., earlier this week, producers were told to brace for no federal water deliveries this season.

Manual survey results were taken at four locations near Lake Tahoe, and combined with electronic readings, indicate a statewide snowpack water content of 61 percent (49 percent in the Northern Sierra, 63 percent in the Central Sierra, and 68 percent in the Southern Sierra.) Last year at this time, snowpack was 111 percent of normal, but the driest spring on record followed resulting in a second consecutive dry water year. Local water agencies are updating Urban Water Management Plans, and DWR is facilitating what water transfers may be available through its Drought Water Bank program. Many providers have already enacted mandatory or voluntary water rationing and it is likely more agencies will require some form of rationing if dry conditions persist.

Storage in California’s major reservoirs is low. Lake Oroville, the principal storage reservoir for the State Water Project (SWP), is at 28 percent of capacity, and 43 percent of average storage for this time of year. With only two months left in what is normally the wettest part of the season, it is growing increasingly unlikely that enough precipitation will fall to end the drought. Continuing dry conditions and regulatory agency restrictions on Delta water exports are limiting water deliveries to farms and urban areas.

A Biological Opinion from the National Marine Fisheries Service to protect salmon and steelhead is expected in March and is the latest action that may further reduce pumping capability. DWR’s early estimate is that it will only be able to deliver 15 percent of requested State Water Project water this year to the Bay Area, San Joaquin Valley, Central Coast and Southern California. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has outlined steps to safeguard the state’s water supply through a comprehensive plan that includes water conservation, more surface and groundwater storage, new investments in the state’s aging water infrastructure, and improved water conveyance to protect the environment and provide a reliable water supply.

The drought and regulatory restrictions underscore the need to take action to safeguard tomorrow’s water supply.

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