Final snow pack results: not good; drought persists

The water content of the state's snowpack actually shrank in the final month of winter, from 80 percent of normal on April 1 to 66 percent of normal recorded Thursday in the state's final snow survey of the season.

The water content of the state’s snowpack actually shrank in the final month of winter, from 80 percent of normal on April 1 to 66 percent of normal recorded Thursday in the state’s final snow survey of the season.  The cause: a heat wave and high winds that essentially evaporated the Sierra Nevada snowpack, the state’s most important water supply. We’re also ending the winter in worse shape than 2008. The winter snowpack at this time last year was recorded at 72 percent of normal.  Elissa Lynn, senior meteorologist at the state Department of Water Resources, said California needed 120 percent of normal snowfall to recover from the last two dry years.

“We way missed that mark,” she said. “Things actually got worse in April.”

Instead, the period since 2007 will likely rank as the 10th-driest three-year stretch in state history, she said.  A number of critics lately have tried to make political waves by blaming California’s drought on environmental regulations. Some have even claimed the state would not be in a drought without court-ordered water-pumping restrictions to protect fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. But that is not true, Lynn and others said.

“We’re actually in worse shape right now than we were last May 1 for snowpack, and that’s not about fish, it’s about snow,” she said.

Fish protection rules have limited water deliveries somewhat this year. State Water Project deliveries from the Delta are expected to be reduced by 200,000 acre-feet this year, or 14 percent, because of protections for the threatened Delta smelt.

But Mother Nature is the real culprit.

“It stuns me to hear people try to deny we’re in a drought,” said Chris Brown, executive director of the California Urban Water Conservation Council. “We can blame the courts all we want, but we’re under a shortfall of rain and snow and have been for three years. People who try to point the finger in other directions are ignoring the facts.”

There are some bright spots.  Folsom Lake, for instance, has exceeded average capacity for the date due to adequate flow in the American River, and is expected to remain near full this summer. Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which serves San Francisco, has similar good fortune. These are relatively small reservoirs.  The state’s biggest reservoirs, including Oroville and Shasta, are still well below normal at 70 and 76 percent of average storage for the date.  Most major reservoirs continue to release water because officials are required to maintain empty space for flood control. Those seasonal requirements, however, have begun to taper off.  An unusually strong late-season storm arrives today to confuse the picture further.  A winter storm watch is in effect across high elevations of the Sierra Nevada. A foot of snow is possible above 7,000 feet by Saturday morning, and travel over highway passes could be affected. The Sacramento Valley could see more than an inch of rain, with more possible Sunday and Monday.

These storms aren’t likely to improve the drought picture

“We definitely didn’t accomplish the water wish this season,” Lynn said.

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