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Executive Summary for February 3rd

We analyze key developments in the California drought, including the State Water Resources Control Board’s decision to extend emergency conservation regulations for urban water users through October. Plus, a look at the latest snow survey in the Sierras that shows above-average snowpack.

Published on Feb. 3, 2016 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Water Conservation Regulations Extended

The State Water Resources Control Board decided yesterday to extend revised regulations for water conservation for urban water users. The new rules would carry through to October 2016.

The rules are slightly relaxed from the 25 percent statewide reduction that was mandated last spring after an executive order from Gov. Jerry Brown on April 1, 2015. But some water districts felt the rule could have been more lenient, especially for water districts that have already taken steps to reduce usage.

“They wanted more credit for investing millions in drought resilient projects and those built before 2013, a cutoff date set by the state for local districts to qualify for cuts up to 8 percent from their individual targets,” the AP reported. “Under the extended drought regulation, cities that are especially hot, dry or crowded or that have managed to come up with new sources of water would get a slight break.”

The regulations were adopted after news was released that for the third month in a row California’s cities and towns have failed to meet the state’s mandate of a 25 percent reduction in water use. The Water Board reported yesterday that statewide water use fell 18.3 percent in December, which is even less of a saving than November, which at 20.4 percent was also short of the mandate’s goal.

Less water saving during the colder, wetter winter months was expected, as much of the biggest cuts in water use came during the summer months when residents limited their outdoor water.

However, taking the long view, California has actually done well. Cumulatively from June through December the state’s reduction in water use was 25.5 percent, which translates to a saving of 1.1 million acre-feet of water. It’s still possible the state can reach its goal of a saving of 1.2 million acre-feet of water by the end of February.

And this year’s mandatory cuts were a vast improvement over 2014 when the governor asked for a voluntary 20 percent reduction in water use in cities and towns. Circle of Blue reported that the voluntary target was met only once, in December 2014, and that most monthly reductions ranged from 7 to 12 percent.

Second Snow Survey Comes Up Big

On Tuesday the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) completed its second manual snow survey of the year in Phillips Station, 90 miles (145km) east of Sacramento, and the results revealed a significant improvement from recent years.

“Rainfall and the Sierra Nevada snowpack’s water content are both markedly improved this water year, and storage in the state’s major reservoirs also has increased significantly since January 1,” reported DWR.

Between the beginning of October and the end of January, rainfall was 123 percent of the historical average. Not surprisingly, though, after four years of drought, most of the state’s largest reservoirs are still below the average for this time of year.

In terms of snowpack, the snow survey team found the snow water equivalent was 25.4 inches (65cm), which puts it at 130 percent of the historical average for February. This is a vast improvement from last year’s survey at this time, which found only 2.5 inches (6cm) of water equivalent in the snowpack. DWR reports that today’s numbers are the highest since 2005.

The reading at Phillips Station, which is at 6,800ft (2,072m) of elevation, is the big media event, but DWR also takes electronic readings of snowpack at 102 different locations in the Sierra Nevada. Across these areas the overall water content now stands at 20.4 inches (52cm) and 114 percent of normal.

Snowpack is crucial to California’s water supply. During warmer months the runoff from the mountains usually supplies around a third of the state’s water needs. Low snowpack in recent years has severely impacted water availability for downstream users. The most anticipated snow survey is usually April 1, which tends to be when snowpack is at its deepest and water managers have the best idea about how much water will be available later in the year.

Top image: In this May 27, 2015, photo, a lawn is irrigated in Sacramento, Calif. The state’s water conservation regulations were just extended through to October 2016. (Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press)

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