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California's first snowpack survey of the winter offers 'dismal' outlook for banking water supplies

File: A palm tree is silhouetted as snow accumulates on the hills above neighborhoods on Jan. 22, 2010 in La Canada Flintridge, California.
File: A palm tree is silhouetted as snow accumulates on the hills above neighborhoods on Jan. 22, 2010 in La Canada Flintridge, California.
David McNew/Getty Images

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California water managers greeted the first Sierra Nevada snow pack survey of the year Friday with strong language, using words like “abysmal” and “dismal” to describe the view it offers of the coming water year. State scientists taking manual samples in several South Lake Tahoe locations found the amount of water in snow pack is only about 20 percent of normal, according to the Department of Water Resources.

Water levels in snowpack measured in this year's survey and one from January 2012 are the lowest on record. 

Snow pack is critical because, according to state resource managers, it normally provides about one third of the water used in California. Officials from the DWR have said that they expect they can only deliver about 5% of what cities and farms are asking for through the State Water Project.

The survey itself isn’t entirely surprising, following months of little to no rain and snow. And precipitation projections historically have risen through the winter season, so early season water supply and delivery projections tend to be conservative. Still, entering the third straight dry year, state water managers stressed that they’re ready with a response.

“While we hope conditions improve, we are fully mobilized to streamline water transfers and take every action possible to ease the effects of dry weather on farms, homes and businesses as we face a possible third consecutive dry year,” said DWR Director Mark Cowin in a written statement.

DWR officials say they’re monitoring water supply impacts in small rural communities whose groundwater sources are stressed by prolonged dry conditions. State officials also used the snowpack survey results to continue to push conservation.

“This is a clear call for all of us to cut back on the amount of water we use watering lawns and landscaping,” said Secretary for Natural Resources John Laird, in a written release. “We have to keep our showers short, and run our washing machines and dishwashers only when we have a full load.” 

As part of a longer term solution, Governor Brown advocates the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, a two-pronged effort to restore ecological conditions in the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta area while shoring up water supplies for the southern part of the state. That $25 billion plan, which doesn’t anticipate sending more water south, remains controversial, its chief skeptics northern California environmentalists, and southern Delta farmers.

State water managers linked the survey results to the plan, which is now out for public comment. 

“With the conveyance proposed in the Bay Delta Conservation Plan in place, the Central Valley this year would have an extra 800,000 acre-feet of water in the San Luis Reservoir,” the DWR’s Laird said. That reservoir, located along highway 152 in Merced County, captures overages of Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta water supplies in wet years.

Brown also created an Interagency Task Force last month, asking the heads of the DWR, the State Water Resources Control Board, the Department of Food and Agriculture, and the Office of Emergency Services to meet weekly, review water shortages and demand, and consider whether the governor should declare a statewide drought.

Urban southern California may not feel the pain of water shortages as acutely as other regions. The Metropolitan Water District, a water wholesaler serving more than two dozen local agencies, upgraded its reservoirs, and says it has banked more water to handle a dry year.

Still, environmentalists and water managers say cutting water use is more than feasible in southern California, where the majority of water is used outdoors, for agriculture and landscaping.