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Winter to offer little drought relief in California

California faces equal chances of above- or below-normal precipitation this winter, according to the federal Climate Prediction Center. But even a normal season wouldn't be enough to end the state's drought.
Tim Hearden

Capital Press

Published on November 22, 2013 10:12AM

Anglers and boaters can drive out onto the exposed bottom of Shasta Lake in Northern California, which was only at 37 percent of capacity as of Nov. 21, according to the state Department of Water Resources.

Tim Hearden/Capital Press

Anglers and boaters can drive out onto the exposed bottom of Shasta Lake in Northern California, which was only at 37 percent of capacity as of Nov. 21, according to the state Department of Water Resources.

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Capital Press

SHASTA LAKE, Calif. — Winter is likely to offer little relief for parched California, as even normal amounts of rain and snow wouldn’t be enough to pull the state out of its persistent drought, a top U.S. climate official asserts.

A long-range weather outlook shows equal chances of above- or below-average precipitation in the Golden State over the next three months, noted Mike Halpert, acting director of the federal Climate Prediction Center.

“Given the drought that’s currently there, even with near-average precipitation you’ll still have persistent drought,” Halpert said Nov. 21 during a conference call with reporters. “So there’s a two-thirds chance the drought is not going away in California this winter.”

The forecast comes as drought has been an ongoing concern across parts of the Southwest and Texas for nearly three years. Though conditions in those regions have improved in the last few months, they may face another dry spell this winter, Halpert said.

Sea surface temperatures across the equatorial Pacific have been near average since spring of 2012, and forecasters expect that to continue, possibly into next summer. That means neither El Nino or La Nina is expected to influence weather patterns over the next few months, federal officials explained.

Dry ground and depleted reservoirs have already prompted the California Department of Water Resources to announce an initial allocation of 5 percent of requested deliveries to State Water Project contractors in 2014.

“We hope things improve with this winter’s storms, but there is no guarantee that 2014 won’t be our third consecutive dry year,” DWR director Mark Cowin said in a statement.

Storage levels in California’s major reservoirs largely determine the initial allocation. Lake Oroville, the state project’s principal reservoir, is at 41 percent of capacity, while Shasta Lake – the Central Valley Project’s largest reservoir – is at 37 percent. The San Luis Reservoir, a vital Central California supply pool for both federal and state contractors, is at 25 percent.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation won’t start estimating its water deliveries to contractors until late February, said Pete Lucero, an agency spokesman in Sacramento.

“All I can tell you is 2013 has been one of the driest – if not the driest – years on record for California,” he said. “We go through those cycles now and then, so there’s no telling … where we’re going to be in the future.”

California received only its second major weather system of the fall Nov. 18-20, when 1.72 inches of rain fell on Redding, 1.17 inches registered in Red Bluff and 0.71 inches was recorded in Sacramento. Many communities have already fallen well below their seasonal averages for precipitation.

Computer models show a series of storms lining up for California in December, said Kathy Hoxsie, a National Weather Service warning coordinator in Oxnard, Calif. AccuWeather goes as far as to predict two straight weeks of clouds or rain in the northern Sacramento Valley at the beginning of the month.

“The big key is if it can tap into moisture,” Hoxsie said. “There’s no question that weather systems will come through. We’re going to get some winds out of it.

“It’s difficult to tell” about long-term forecasts without a clear El Nino or La Nina pattern, she said. “I think if we had a normal season at this point, most people would think it was a very wet season.”

California rainfall

Here are the season-to-date rainfall totals and comparisons to normal for selected California cities, according to the National Weather Service. Totals are as of Nov. 21:

Redding: 3.12 inches (normal 5.67 inches)

Eureka: 4.56 inches (normal 6.69 inches)

Sacramento: 1.3 inches (normal 2.54 inches)

Modesto: 1.23 inches (normal 1.81 inches)

Salinas: 0.73 inches (normal 1.62 inches)

Fresno: 0.43 inches (normal 1.51 inches)


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