Almost Average Is Not Good Enough
At this time last year, Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Survey Program, found no snow on the ground for the April 1 snow survey in Phillips Station, California, and in a press conference that followed, Gov. Jerry Brown announced mandatory water conservation measures across the state.
This year, during Wednesday’s snow survey – thought to be the most critical one of the year for determining spring and summer runoff – there were feet of snow on the ground. But it’s not quite enough to lift California out of drought.
Gehrke’s team found 58.4 inches of snow with a water content of 26 inches. It registered at 97 percent of the historical average for this time of year. But this northern portion of the Sierra fared better than the rest of the mountains. Snowpack in the central region measured 88 percent of average and the southern region was down to 72 percent of average.
Despite the fact that the snowpack this year was significantly better than the last several years, a statewide average snowpack of 87 percent of the historical average is not enough to quench California’s multiyear drought.
“While for many parts of the state there will be both significant gains in both reservoir storage and streamflow, the effects of previous dry years will remain for now,” said Gehrke.
To Conserve or Not to Conserve?
Now that officials have a good sense of El Niño’s impact on California and how the water year is shaping up, one of the biggest questions is whether conservation mandates, which were extended until October (although loosened in some areas) will remain in place.
“The message is still very strong: Conservation measures are still going to be important,” Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Survey Program, told the San Jose Mercury News on Wednesday. But how important has left some to speculate.
The state has yet to announce any changes to conservation measures, but some water districts are calling for additional easing on water restrictions.
“I think there is a strong case to be made that portions of the state are not in emergency conditions anymore,” Deven Upadhyay of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California told the San Jose Mercury News. “I do think that needs to be considered.”
And in an interview with Capital Public Radio, Amy Talbot, the Water Efficiency Program Manager for the Sacramento Regional Water Authority, said, “Given the improved conditions, we look forward to working with the State Water Board to develop a plan to relax or rescind emergency conservation in areas of the state experiencing average or better hydrologic conditions and transition back into promoting water efficiency as a long-term lifestyle benefit.”
This week’s drought monitor still shows that extreme drought stretches across 55 percent of the state. And while the most severe impacts are more localized, less than four percent of California is totally free of drought designation.
Investigating New Sources of Water
The hunt is on across California to develop “new” sources of water, and one of the ways to do that is to be more thrifty with the water that is already part of our water supply. That means not just conserving and being more efficient, but also reusing or recycling water.
The California State Assembly Select Committee on Water Consumption and Alternative Sources, chaired by Assemblymember Richard Gordon, released a report on strategies for developing additional water supply sources. The report says that while critical, conservation will not be enough in the future to solve the state’s water woes.
The report found that onsite water reuse systems are a strong option, but also cautioned that by decentralizing water treatment, we will also face other challenges to our centralized treatment systems. But “greater potable reuse of recycled water will be critical to California’s water future,” the report stated, and said that “indirect potable reuse is occurring in California now and is set to expand.” This method of treating wastewater to drinking water standards and injecting it back into groundwater for use later in the water supply has been done in Orange County for years and may happen soon in Santa Clara County, which has developed the Silicon Valley Advanced Water Purification Center.
The report also found that stormwater was an important and underutilized resource because of funding restrictions related to Proposition 218. And the report called desalination an “option of last resort” that should only be considered “after a region has been successful with conservation and has embarked on substantial water reclamation projects as well.”
You can read the entire report and its findings and recommendations here.
Top image: The snowpack survey tube sits in the snow as Frank Gehrke, left, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program for the Department of Water Resources, prepares to leave the snow covered meadow after conducting the snow survey at Phillips Station near Echo Summit, Calif., Wednesday, March 30, 2016.The survey showed the snowpack at about 95 percent of normal for this site at this time of year. (Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press)