California reservoirs in dire need of a wet winter

Published on October 30th, 2013

By Mark Grossi
The Fresno Bee
October 27, 2013

Pine Flat Reservoir is a ghost of a lake in the Fresno County foothills — a puddle in a 326 billion-gallon gorge.

Holding only 16% of its capacity, Pine Flat is the best example of why there is high anxiety over the approaching wet season.

Gone is the healthy water storage that floated California through two dry years. Major reservoirs around the state need gully-washing storms this winter.

"Whatever the storms bring this winter, that's what we will have to cope with next summer," said Steve Haugen, watermaster at the Kings River Water Association, which closely monitors Pine Flat Reservoir.

Northern reservoirs face similar challenges, though water storage is not as low as Pine Flat. Shasta, Oroville, Trinity, New Melones, Don Pedro and Exchequer are hovering at one-third to one-half of capacity, far lower than average for late October.

Dwindling reservoirs should be a wake-up call to Californians, said Mark Cowin, director of the state Department of Water Resources. The state has not declared a drought, but now is the time to prepare additional water-conservation ideas for next year.

"Both the State Water Project and federal Central Valley Project heavily depend on the Sierra Nevada snowpack," he said. "We are now facing real trouble if 2014 is dry."

All eyes will be on Northern California, where the state's highest rain and snow totals occur.

Many western San Joaquin Valley farms and more than 20 million Southern Californians look to northern reservoirs for water, delivered through extensively plumbed federal and state water projects.

Farmers and cityfolk who closely watch Shasta and other northern reservoirs might have suffered whiplash last winter. The reservoirs stored a lot of water last year after a stormy November and December, said spokesman Pete Lucero of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, owner of the Central Valley Project.

But suddenly the spigot turned off.

"January through May 2013 were California's driest in about 90 years of recordkeeping," Lucero said.

San Luis Reservoir, which gets water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, is only 22% of its historical average for this time of year.

Dry weather was not the whole story. Delta environmental restrictions early this year resulted in pumping cutbacks and the loss of nearly 1 million acre-feet of water at San Luis.

Federal officials also are required to use water releases from Northern California reservoirs to help protect nature, including fish such as delta smelt and salmon.

Far from Northern California, Millerton Lake near Fresno is oddly 152% of average, but it has nothing to do with weather. Like the delta, it is related to environmental issues.

Federal officials are maintaining a higher level in Millerton to provide water needed for releases in the long-running project to restore the San Joaquin River. Bureau leaders also say Millerton's storage has been helped by water users — farms and cities — that have conserved well this year.

The lake is only a little more than one-tenth of the size of Shasta. Millerton's water is sent to customers along the eastern side of the Valley, including 15,000 growers on 1 million acres in the Friant Water Authority.

Cities, such as Fresno and Orange Cove, also buy the federal water from Millerton.

A little farther south on the Kings River, Pine Flat Reservoir has a little more than 150,000 acre-feet of water, with a capacity of 1 million acre-feet.

An acre-foot of water is 326,000 gallons or enough for an average Valley family for about 18 months.

Last winter, the mountains above Pine Flat Reservoir received the ninth-worst precipitation total in the past 116 seasons, watermaster Haugen said.

He said he does not hold much hope for a record-breaking winter, based on the past 62 years of snowpack data for the area. During that time, big winters have happened when the eastern Pacific Ocean was warm as part of the phenomenon known as El Niño.

This year, the ocean temperatures are not warm, according to federal scientists. The ocean isn't cool either, as it would be in La Niña, which sometimes means drier, colder weather in parts of California.

Without El Niño or La Niña, forecasting the wet season is much tougher.

The National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center does not give many clues about California rain and snow in November. Federal scientists say it's even money on average rainfall.

At the Weather Service's Hanford office, meteorologist Paul Iniguez said Central California's weather appears to be in a holding pattern, for the moment.

"In the next two weeks, a continuation of the current dry pattern looks likely," he said. "A big rain event in the next two to three weeks appears, for now, unlikely."

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