Drought sets in; Sierra snowpack likely only 55 percent of normal by April 1

Wendilyn Grasseschi
Times Reporter

A much-hoped-for ‘Miracle March’ didn’t materialize and the state is officially now running out of time to make up for a snowpack that has largely failed to appear.
According to local and state weather forecasters, the Sierra snowpack is coming in at about 55 percent of normal overall – and rest of the month does not look promising in terms of snow.

The bad news on both fronts prompted the state this week to tell farmers and cities and other water users to get ready for some dramatic water conservation efforts and possible shortages this year, with only five percent of the water requested by all users expected to be available.

“As California experiences a second consecutive dry year, today the California Department of Water Resources announced an adjustment to its initial State Water Project allocation for the 2021 water year,” the state DWR said this week. “The department now expects to deliver five percent of requested supplies this year, down from the initial allocation of 10 percent announced in December.

“Initial allocations are based on conservative assumptions regarding hydrology and factors such as reservoir storage,” they said in a recent news release. “Allocations are reviewed monthly and may change based on snowpack and runoff information. They are typically finalized by May.”

“We are now facing the reality that it will be a second dry year for California and that is having a significant impact on our water supply,” said DWR Director Karla Nemeth. “The Department of Water Resources is working with our federal and state partners to plan for the impacts of limited water supplies this summer for agriculture as well as urban and rural water users. We encourage everyone to look for ways to use water efficiently in their everyday lives.”

The five percent allocation amounts to 210,266 acre-feet of water, distributed among the 29 long-term SWP contractors who serve more than 27 million Californians and 750,000 acres of farmland.

Allocations represent the amount of SWP water that DWR will deliver for the year and are reviewed monthly based on several factors, such as water in storage, environmental requirements, and rain and snow runoff projections. For 2020, the initial SWP allocation was 10 percent and the final allocation was 20 percent in May.

Ongoing drought conditions require the coordination of federal, state and local agencies. This week, they state said, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the Central Valley Project, is also expected to adjust its initial CVP water supply allocation accordingly. “Yesterday, the State Water Resources Control Board mailed early warning notices to approximately 40,000 water right holders urging them to plan for potential shortages by reducing water use and adopting practical conservation measures,” they said.

Wildlife will also be affected. “As a result of the persistent drought conditions, and in accordance with its permit for the long-term operation of the State Water Project, DWR has submitted a revised Drought Contingency Plan to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife,” they said. “The plan provides updated hydrologic conditions and outlines areas of concern for the joint operations of the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project, water quality, and environmental impacts.

“The severity of the situation is particularly evident in the North State,” they said. “Lake Oroville is currently at 53 percent of average. The Feather River watershed, which feeds into Lake Oroville, has seen significantly less precipitation this year than normal, on track for its second driest year on record. Following a below average 2020 water year, California’s major reservoirs are at 50 percent of capacity,” they said.

Closer to home, Mammoth forecaster Howard Sheckter doesn’t see a lot of hope for the Sierra to catch up either. The last snowpack survey is generally taken around April 1 when the snowpack is considered to be at its deepest point. After that date, the snow is melting faster than it can accumulate so measurements that determine the amount of water water-users can get from the Sierra are determined following this last measurement.

“Our weather pattern seems to be shifting to more of an inside slider pattern or far west slider pattern which does not hold much hope for any meaningful snowstorms,” Sheckter said. “This looks especially true through the first few weeks of April.

“I think that anecdotally, it is now fair to say we are looking at a significant dry water year this year with precipitation in and around the 50 percent to 55 percent of normal range by April 1,” he said.

The only hope is a good monsoon season, which could come with enough rain to offset the inevitable lightning, he said. On that note, there is some good news; the forecast for the monsoon season is robust this summer and if that occurs, some of the fire danger could be offset by wetting rains.