By Kurtis Alexander
Fresh snow is blanketing the Sierra this week, but not enough to put a big dent in the statewide drought.
State surveying crews, making their monthly trek on skis and snowshoes to high-elevation weather stations, said Thursday that the snowpack is just 24 percent of average for this time of year. That means the mountain runoff that normally fills reservoirs and makes up a third of the state’s water supply will amount to little more than a trickle.
Although there’s more snow than there was a month ago — when the accumulation was just 12 percent of average and surveyors found bare ground in some spots — it’s likely that cities and farms that depend on the Sierra for their water will come up short in the summer.
“It’s not a good situation for us,” said Steve Ritchie, assistant general manager for water for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which delivers water from the Sierra to 2.6 million Bay Area customers. “We’re waiting for the snow to melt and come down and fill our reservoir, but it ain’t happening.”
The district is among several Bay Area agencies that are asking people to reduce their water consumption by 10 percent, while hoping late-season storms will head off the need for mandatory rationing.
Some North Bay communities, which depend on local supplies, and Sacramento already have imposed mandatory cuts.
The wet weather hitting California this week is helping. A system from the Gulf of Alaska dropped a foot of snow in the High Sierra since Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service, and an additional 15 inches is expected this weekend. The incoming storm is expected to drop large amounts of rain over much of the state.
With precipitation at just 42 percent of average in the northern range and 36 percent in the southern mountains, much more is needed. But more may not be on the way. The weather service’s Climate Prediction Center is projecting a drier-than-average spring.
40 days, 40 nights
“Every report I’ve seen says we need another 40 days and 40 nights of rain or whatever to make any difference,” said Daniel Sumner, who as director of the UC Agricultural Issues Center in Davis is closely watching water supplies. “Every drop is helpful, but we need a lot more.”
The Department of Water Resources’ snowpack measurement is a benchmark for state and federal officials who determine how much water California’s networks of reservoirs and canals will deliver to communities and farms.
At the Phillips Station off Highway 50 near Echo Summit, surveyors measured 8.1 inches of water in the frozen snow Thursday, just a third of what the site averages at this time of year. It was the same story at other weather stations.
“We welcome the late storms, but they are not enough to end the drought,” Mark Cowin, director of the state Department of Water Resources, said in a statement. “We can’t control the weather, but we can control the amount of water we use. This drought is a wake-up call that we all have to take water conservation seriously and make it a way of life.”
No help from feds
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials said last week that water districts serving farmers are likely to get no water from the Central Valley Project if conditions don’t improve. Urban districts, they said, would get just half of what they requested.
State Water Project officials said last month that their customers would get no water.
The estimates mean cities and farms will have to turn to other sources, such as groundwater and locally managed reservoirs. Some parts of the state are better equipped to do this than others.
San Francisco officials say voluntary water reductions and a few more storms should get them through the dry year. In the East Bay, water officials also say 10 percent voluntary reductions and backup supplies will help weather dry times.
“We certainly got a big boost with the rains in February,” said Andrea Pook, spokeswoman for East Bay Municipal Utility District, which provides water, largely from the Sierra, to 1.3 million customers. “But we’re going to need a lot more precipitation to bring us out of a drought.”
— Reach Kurtis Alexander at [email protected]