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The California water torture: Mother Nature flaking out on Sierra snow

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The California water torture: Mother Nature flaking out on Sierra snow

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POSTED January 31, 2009 5:13 a.m.
It isn’t a snow job.

California is in deep trouble.

The Department of Water Resources Sierra snowpack survey this week showed it is at 61 percent of normal. A growing number of water experts are warning Californians the outlook for adequate water to irrigate crops, fight fires, run businesses, flush toilets, and water lawns is growing dismal with each passing day of dry winter weather.

“It’s not good,” pointed out South San Joaquin Irrigation District General Manager Jeff Shields. “The next eight weeks are critical for us.”

The district figured last month they’d eke by with a fairly decent January in terms of snowfall. Now, however, with January not only being a bust for big Sierra storms but historically the No. 1 month in the Sierra for precipitation, the situation is getting precarious.

February and March are the last two months of major precipitation. The Sierra needs a normal amount of snowfall in each month or else water deliveries may be cut back even further than the 15 percent of normal from the Bureau of Reclamation reservoirs. Similar major cutbacks are anticipated in State Water Project deliveries as well.

Shields said the SSSJID board has no intention of waiting. They are dusting off drought contingency plans and updating them to reflect realties that have never been dealt with in other water shortage years including 1976-77 and the early 1980s. The biggest change is the court order that diverts water to maintain minimal flows in the Delta. The board will take steps to put drought contingency measures within the month.

That includes working with the three cities – Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy – that receive treated surface water from SSJID.

In the past SSJID has rented pumps and drew on the underground aquifers to dump water into irrigation wells. That may end up being problematic this time around due to major salt water intrusion into the aquifer. Too much salt in the water and it can kill crops and essentially sterilizes soil.

While Shields said he doesn’t want to make any concrete, dire predictions, he said “it would be smart if people started making a serious effort to conserve water now instead of later.”

New Melones Reservoir, the linchpin for the water supply for SSJID and Oakdale Irrigation District was at 48 percent on Jan. 19. At this point in January, the reservoir should be at 71 percent of capacity based on a 15-year average.

New Melones, compared to other state and federal reservoirs, is in great shape. Folsom is at 48 percent of capacity, Shasta is at 44 percent capacity and San Luis Reservoir – critical for Southern California – is at 38 percent of capacity.

The district is moving toward monitoring soil moisture to fine tune crop irrigation. At the same time, though, Shields said there is concern that people don’t understand how wasteful it is to keep automatic sprinklers on during rain storms or the day after – as what happened last week – or on so long that they floods gutters.

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