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California enters new year with a larger snowpack

Issue Date: January 6, 2016
By Kate Campbell
Frank Gehrke of the state Department of Water Resources measures the snowpack at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada. Gehrke said the snowpack is “much better” than it was a year ago.
Photo/California Department of Water Resources

With the Sierra Nevada snowpack standing at or above average going into what typically is the year's key period for precipitation, California farmers and ranchers are watching the skies and hoping for a dent in the state's multi-year drought. But memories of past winters that started strongly, then fizzled, leave farmers and water experts cautious.

When the state Department of Water Resources took the season's first manual survey of the snowpack last week, it found water content of the snow at the survey site had reached 136 percent of the long-term average. Snow sensors placed throughout the Sierra put the statewide water content at 105 percent.

Forecasts of additional storms in the first week of January brought further cause for optimism—especially in the wake of the bone-dry January of a year ago—but DWR Director Mark Cowin cautioned that another three or four months of surveys will be needed to indicate "whether the snowpack's runoff will be sufficient to replenish California's reservoirs by this summer."

For example, Lake Oroville in Butte County, the principal State Water Project reservoir, now holds about 47 percent of its historical average for the date. Lake Shasta north of Redding, the largest reservoir in the federal Central Valley Project, stands at about 50 percent of average storage, while San Luis Reservoir, a critical south-of-delta holding facility for both the SWP and CVP, remains at 30 percent of average.

State water officials said it will be difficult to rebuild those storage levels quickly.

In average years, the Sierra snowpack provides about 30 percent of California's water needs as it melts each summer.

"One thing that puts a smile on my face is looking east and seeing snow on the mountains," Kern County farmer Pete Belluomini said. "The last couple of years, we've been watching the snowpack and it was bleak, but now things are looking more positive."

Belluomini said farmers in his area have already heard from their local irrigation districts that, if the drought situation doesn't improve, they can expect less irrigation water in 2016.

"We're planning for the worst-case scenario and hoping it doesn't come to that," he said.

"Farmers have been forced to be thrifty and smart," Belluomini added. "They've figured out ways to save water and I hope will continue to use those conservation techniques and ideas as part of everyday life, not just life in an emergency. That's how our company thinks, and the drought offered lessons we've learned."

With the El Niño weather pattern offering the prospect of additional storms reaching California beginning this month, California Farm Bureau Federation Director of Water Resources Danny Merkley urged operators of state and federal water projects to take full advantage of storm flows.

"Any rainstorms that create flows in excess of what is necessary for the ecosystem, fish, delta water quality and vested water users must be diverted to surface storage and good groundwater recharge areas, rather than being allowed to flow into the Pacific Ocean," Merkley said.

The prospect of a rebuilding Sierra snowpack also underlines the need for California to update its "aging water infrastructure," he said, to capture flows in future wet years that can provide water to farms, cities and the environment during prolonged dry periods.

"Upper watershed management, new water storage facilities, groundwater recharge and being sure to operate facilities for today's weather conditions and environmental policies are all necessary tools in the 21st century," Merkley said.

Taking advantage of excess flows during times of plenty is also key to recharging groundwater basins, he noted.

In his area, Belluomini said, groundwater levels appear to be stabilizing.

"We seem to have found an equilibrium with our groundwater and we're cautiously optimistic about our water supply going into this year," he said.

Colusa County farmer John Garner, who chairs the CFBF Water Advisory Committee, said the drought should have taught California that the state must be "truly honest" about its water needs.

"Our current water storage capacity is not adequate to serve all of California, and that has been true for decades," he said. "I don't see that reality changing in the future—even with full reservoirs. We need water infrastructure that allows for more storage and flexibility in our water supply management system."

Merkley said the Proposition 1 water bond approved by California voters in November 2014 provides $2.7 billion in money for water storage, which he described as "a down payment" on needed development. He said Farm Bureau has been working with the California Water Commission on its Water Storage Investment Program, to identify projects that would have the largest impact on statewide water infrastructure.

Later this year, Merkley said, the Water Commission will finalize the regulations needed to allow competitive review of the projects submitted for funding.

"We will continue to urge the commission to move the process along as expeditiously as possible," he said.

Meanwhile, at Phillips Station in the Sierra, where DWR conducted its manual snow survey, survey chief Frank Gehrke said the snowpack is "much better" than it was last year at this time.

"If we believe the forecasts, then El Niño is supposed to kick in as we move through the rest of the winter," Gehrke said. "That will be critical when it comes to looking at reservoir storage."

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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