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2009: Third year of drought?

Sierra snow survey not encouraging

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2009: Third year of drought?

Lake Oroville - the biggest storage component of the State Water project that can hold 3,538,000 acre feet of water - was at 27 percent of capacity on Tuesday.

Photo contributed/

POSTED January 1, 2009 11:52 p.m.

A snow storm expected to blanket the higher elevations in the Sierra today is in deep contrast to snow surveys that are pointing to an unprecedented third year of drought in the post World War II era in California.

The Department of Water Resources this week conducted monthly surveys and discovered water content was 83 percent of normal. It is better, though, than a survey a year ago that showed water content was 60 percent of normal and a survey two years prior that placed it at 69 percent of normal. The last non-drought year — 2006 — had water content at 92 percent of normal at the end of December.

The snow pack and its water content are critical as it is actually the largest reservoir of water in California. January is also critical as it is historically the wettest month in terms of snow in the Sierra.

Forecasters expect the 2008-09 weather year to be dry again based on temperatures in the eastern and central Pacific Ocean being cooler than normal. Historically, this changes weather patterns and reduces precipitation in California.
Department of Water Resources has already indicated water deliveries to cities and agricultural will be just 15 percent of normal.

The biggest storage component of the State Water Project is Lake Oroville. As of Tuesday, Lake Oroville was at 27 percent of capacity with 969,575 acre feet of water. It is designed to hold 3,538,000 million acre feet of water behind a dam that rises 770 feet — 43.6 feet higher than Hoover Dam making it the highest dam in the United States and one of the highest earthen dam in the world.

At the end of November, Shasta Lake — the backbone of the Central Valley Project, which is the federal segment complicated water supply and transport system — was 170 feet below its high water mark. The level has bounced back slightly with recent storms and was 151 feet below the high water mark on Dec 31. That sounds good, but it isn’t. The water level should be upwards of 80 feet high for a normal water year.

The lake’s record low was in 1977 when the level was 230 feet below the high water mark. The state now has 35 million residents — 14 million more than back in 1977.

New Melones — the reservoir that partially dictates the South San Joaquin Irrigation District’s water fortunes  — holds 2,420,000 acre feet of water. As of Wednesday, it was down to 1,143,140 acre feet and significantly below typical early January storage.

SSJID is expected to be in a fairly decent position for spring given the capacity of the Tri-Dam System it operates with Oakdale Irrigation District. But that unravels if January and February snow fall fails to at least hit normal levels.

SSJID is critical to 55,000 acres of farmland around Manteca, Ripon, and Escalon. The agency also supplies municipal water to the cities of Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy.

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