Following an onslaught of winter storms, the California snowpack has jumped to 160% of normal for this time of year. Reservoirs are filling, the state has eased curtailments, and water districts are banking excess flows. Yet officials are issuing sober reminders that the state has far to go this winter and spring to make up for an unprecedented water deficit.
“We could not have asked for a better December, in terms of Sierra snow and rain,” said Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth, after DWR conducted the first snow survey of the season last week. “But Californians need to be aware that even these big storms may not refill our major reservoirs during the next few months.”
The deluge of snow and rain broke records across the state. The UC Berkeley Central Sierra Snow Lab recorded 17 feet of snow at its mountain station, bringing the location to 260% of average for this time of year. Los Angeles broke an 85-year record for daily rainfall totals, while flooding in several Southern California regions led to emergency evacuations and prompted Gov. Gavin Newsom to proclaim a state of emergency for several counties to bolster relief efforts.
Nemeth recognized that while slightly below average temperatures last month helped build the snowpack, California must maintain average temperatures to preserve that “frozen reservoir” into the dry summer months ahead. She cautioned Californians to keep conserving water. The State Water Resources Control Board on Tuesday passed new rules banning wasteful water use in cities and towns.
High temperatures, dry soil and increased evaporation led to a disappointing snowpack runoff in 2021, raising the goalpost for the total precipitation needed for California to climb out of the drought. Last winter was the state’s second driest on record, with the previous winter being the fifth driest. The state still has two traditionally wet months ahead that will determine the overall outlook for the year. The snowpack to date—along with the total precipitation since the water year began in October—is just half of the amount needed to complete an average year.
According to the latest assessment from the U.S. Drought Monitor, nearly all of California has pulled free from the “exceptional drought” category, at the highest end of the scale. But the entire Central Valley—which stretches up to Lake Shasta and the Oregon border—remains in “extreme drought.”
Considering the state’s largest reservoirs, Lake Oroville stands at 74% of average while Lake Shasta, Trinity Lake and San Luis Reservoir each stand at just half of their historical averages. While Folsom Lake is currently at 144% of average for this time of year, the Bureau of Reclamation has been releasing water to create room for more runoff from upcoming storms—serving the reservoir’s other main function of protecting the Sacramento region from flooding.
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Water districts are looking to capture some of those excess flows. The state water board has temporarily suspended curtailment orders to allow for such diversions, while Reclamation has increased water supply allocations, raising the Friant Water Authority’s Class 1 allocation to 40% of its contracted amount. This provides districts the opportunity to increase use or bank water over the next two months, according to Friant.
To balance the many needs for the Delta water, Reclamation issued a 14-day reduction for pumping water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to minimize impacts to endangered fish.
DWR and Reclamation are also moving forward on an emergency drought plan for the Delta, in coordination with the state water board. On Wednesday the board will hold a workshop to gather public input on a temporary urgency change petition (TUCP), which would relax water quality standards in the Delta to protect supplies for basic human health and safety needs. The board will also decide if a temporary rock barrier should remain in place in the Delta. DWR erected the barrier last summer to block saline ocean water from encroaching on the Delta and seeping into the pumps for the state and federal water projects.
Environmental groups see the TUCP as “gutting” protections for endangered species like the Delta smelt, and argue it is a temporary solution to address a recurring issue.
Drought looms over much of the West as well, though widespread and heavy precipitation has led to large parts of Arizona, Utah and Idaho dropping down a category in the drought monitor.
Drought conditions, coupled with hurricane-force winds, fueled a fire near Boulder, Colorado, last week that destroyed nearly a thousand homes and businesses. While the Upper Colorado Basin has jumped to 115% of normal since mid-December, officials caution that it would take several years of such conditions to improve water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
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