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California storms provide little relief from drought

While recent storms enabled state and federal water agencies to temporarily increase pumping south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a statewide snowpack level of only 32 percent of normal on April 1 promised a gloomy summer for farms and many communities.
Tim Hearden

Capital Press

Published on April 1, 2014 5:01PM

Tim Hearden/Capital Press   
Willows, Calif., rice farmer Larry Maben checks the gauges on one of his wells on a recent morning. He and other California farmers will rely largely on well water this year because of water cutbacks.

Tim Hearden/Capital Press Willows, Calif., rice farmer Larry Maben checks the gauges on one of his wells on a recent morning. He and other California farmers will rely largely on well water this year because of water cutbacks.

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SACRAMENTO — While recent storms have prompted water agencies to boost pumping, a snow survey April 1 offered little hope of long-term relief from California’s crippling drought.

Manual and electronic readings by the state Department of Water Resources showed the snowpack at only 32 percent of normal for what is typically the peak snowpack period.

State and federal officials said storms that dumped more than an inch of rain on the airport here in the last week of March would enable them again to increase pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, as they did during wet periods in February and early March.

The DWR, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and other agencies on March 31 turned up the spigot from 1,500 cubic feet per second to as much as 6,500 cfs and expected to maintain the higher level for at least a week, DWR director Mark Cowin said.

But officials cautioned that although the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada range received a boost from late-season storms, its meager water content still promises a gloomy summer for California farms and many communities.

“Suffice it to say that February and March storms have probably kept us from breaking records from the historic drought this year, but they certainly haven’t rescued us from that drought,” Cowin told reporters during an April 1 conference call.

“We certainly appreciate and will make the best use of the precipitation that has resulted in additional snowpack and runoff over the course of the last few weeks, but of course the storm window is closing,” he said.

Rain was expected to continue through the week in some northern areas before a high-pressure ridge returned over California this weekend, with the next system possibly appearing by the end of next week, National Weather Service meteorologist Holly Osborne said.

“Every little bit helps, but for a lot of areas we were still below normal precipitation for March, and for the year we’re still looking at below-normal precipitation,” Osborne told the Capital Press. “It was like that the last couple of years, too. It’s hard to make up that deficit, especially when we’re not even getting normal precipitation.”

State and federal water agencies stopped short of revising their allocations for the coming season, which were set at zero for farms without senior water rights. Officials said they’ll analyze the snow survey and come up with new allocations, if there are any, by mid-April.

“Certainly all precipitation is good, and we hope to continue to get enough to improve allocations for people,” Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman Margaret Gidding said. “We know how tough it is for everyone in these circumstances.”

State and federal agencies insist they’ve been working together in recent weeks to make as much water as possible available for farms and other uses south of the Delta. Recently state Water Resources Control Board executive director Tom Howard issued an order that less water be pushed out into the San Francisco Bay for fish so that more could be used for other purposes.

Storms enabled the state and federal water projects to boost pumping from the Delta to as much as 6,000 cfs for about a week in February, and pumping was increased to nearly 7,000 cfs for about a week in early March, Cowin told reporters.

But Cowin cautioned that farmers may not see much if any additional water from the pumping because state officials want to keep some water in the San Luis Reservoir in case 2015 is dry, too. The reservoir was only at 42 percent of capacity as of March 31, according to the DWR’s California Data Exchange Center.

Statewide, critically low reservoirs have combined with low snowpack and precipitation to create a dire outlook, officials warn. Lake Oroville, the State Water Project’s principal reservoir, and Shasta Lake, the centerpiece of the federal Central Valley Project, were both at less than half their capacity this week.


California snowpack: http://cdec.water.ca.gov/cdecapp/snowapp/sweq.action

California reservoirs: http://cdec.water.ca.gov/cdecapp/resapp/getResGraphsMain.action

Water conditions: http://www.water.ca.gov/waterconditions/

Drought page: http://www.water.ca.gov/waterconditions/drought/


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