Officials: Driest start to a year in nearly a century for Northern California

Matthew Renda
Courtesy National Weather Service

TAHOE/TRUCKEE – Northern California has experienced the driest start to a calendar year since 1921, weather officials said.

A total of 2.3 inches of precipitation fell since December, according to measurements taken at eight weather stations staggered throughout the Northern Sierra.

In 1991, 4 inches fell over the same time period, representing the next lowest total.

Only 1.32 inches of precipitation has fallen in downtown Sacramento thus far in 2013, which makes it the third driest total since records started being kept – dating back to the 1880s said Tom Dang, National Weather Service meteorologist. The average for January and February is 7 inches, Dang said.

The paucity of snowfall in the mountains has resulted in “a well below average” water content in the mountain snowpack, according to the California Department of Water Resources, which conducted its third snow survey of the season Thursday.

The survey revealed Sierra snowpack water content is only 66 percent of average for this time of year and only 57 percent of the average April 1 reading.

“The snowpack hasn’t actually lost much water content since the season’s first survey Jan. 2, when it was 134 percent of normal for that date, but it hasn’t continued to build as winter has deepened because of the continuing warm weather that set in after the storms of late November and early December,” said the DWR in a Thursday news release. “In other words, the snowpack has not kept pace with the calendar.”

The snowpack – often called California’s “frozen reservoir” – normally provides about a third of the water for California’s farms and communities.

Nevada Irrigation District Assistant General Manager Tim Crough said his water agency’s operations have yet to be affected. Preparations are being made for a dry year.

“If we don’t have a miracle March, we’ll see a low storage of snow,” Crough said, adding it was not time to panic.

NID and state agencies typically wait until April 1, when the snowpack normally is at its peak before beginning to melt into the state’s streams, reservoirs and aquifers, before declaring a drought.

The prospect of a dry year and a possible drought caused several state agencies to join the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in discussions to locate solutions to an estimated loss of more than 700,000 acre-feet of water that would have been stored for future agricultural uses, AgAlert reported last week. State officials curtailed water transfers from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, cutting back water pumps to protect delta smelt, an endangered fish species that has been drawn into the equipment.

U.S. Congressman Doug LaMalfa, who owns a rice farm in Richvale and represents Nevada County in the House of Representatives, expressed frustration at the decision to curb the transfer.

“Water supplies shrink as officials act to protect fish,” LaMalfa wrote on his official Twitter account. “Who protects the growers of food?”

While much of the news of the dry water year continues to permeate, Dang said relief could be coming.

“We are increasingly confident a low-pressure system will arrive in the area in the middle of next week bringing an average winter storm,” Dang said.

The timing remains uncertain, but Wednesday looks likely.

The most salient reason behind the persistent dry weather is a high-pressure system that established itself just east of the California coast line. The system deflected storm systems to the Pacific Northwest and has kept the skies over the Sierra Foothills clear and blue.

The DWR expressed skepticism that a precipitation-laden March would make much of an impact.

“Dry weather combined with pumping restrictions to protect Delta smelt are making this a gloomy water supply year,” said DWR Director Mark Cowin. “This scenario is exactly why we need an alternative water conveyance system as proposed in the Bay Delta Conservation Plan to both protect fish species and give California a reliable water supply.”

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