Executive Summary for January 6th

In this weekly roundup, we analyze key water developments in California, including a look at the latest snow survey and storm information. We also look at a new directive from the Interior Secretary.

Published on Jan. 6, 2017 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Drought Update

The year’s first manual readings of snowpack and snow water equivalence took place on Jan. 3 at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada, giving an indication of how well California is shaping up against the drought.

The survey found a snow water equivalence of 6in – which is 5.3in below the average early-January figure measured at Phillips since 1964. Snow water equivalence is the depth of water that theoretically would result if the entire snowpack melted instantaneously. It outweighs depth in evaluating the status of the snowpack.

The water content of the northern Sierra snowpack was found to be 68 percent of the multi-decade average; the central and southern Sierra readings are 65 and 73 percent of average respectively. Statewide, the snowpack holds 70 percent of the Jan. 3 average, the Department of Water Resources reported.

With several more of the wettest months of the year ahead and big storms in the near-term forecast, there is still optimism on water levels.

“I can see us being potentially at average once that series of storms moves through,” said Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program. “I think it’s a very encouraging start to the winter, and certainly we’ve had other winters when [Phillips] has been basically a bare field.”

Precipitation is one area of concern, but temperature is another. Higher temperatures can cause more of the wet weather to fall as rain instead of snow, causing a “snow deficit,” leaving less water available in spring and summer when it is needed most.

Wet Weather Ahead

There is good and bad news ahead in the immediate forecast for California. After a week of wet weather, another atmospheric river will deliver a huge dose of precipitation to much of the state.

But the storm is bringing higher temperatures with it, which could result in serious flooding and diminish some of the precious snowpack just accumulated.

“We have a lot of substantial snowpack in the Sierras right now, and a lot of that at lower elevations might be washed away as rain. I would be surprised if there wasn’t a big contribution to snowmelt,” Daniel Swain, a fellow at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, told Wired.

And the San Francisco Chronicle reported on the potential for flooding: “Snow will fall at 9,000ft [2,750m] and higher over the weekend, and up to a foot of rain is forecast to drench everything below that. When all that fresh snow melts in the downpour, nearly all major rivers in the central Sierra will rise to their highest levels in years, with many expected to flood.”

Drought Directive from Interior Secretary

In the waning weeks of the Obama Administration, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell issued a Secretarial Order to spur federal agencies to “take timely actions to help address the effects of drought and climate change on California’s water supply and imperiled wildlife.”

The order addressed a range of issues including plans for threatened delta smelt and winter-run Chinook salmon, updates to the 2006 Bay-Delta Plan and notably California Water Fix, the plan to build two large water tunnels through the Delta. It called for timely action from federal agencies in completing biological opinions on the project.

Not surprisingly, it drew mixed responses.

“Our broad coalition of businesses, labor, family farmers, public safety and civil justice leaders applauds the Obama Administration and Interior Secretary Jewell for pushing to accelerate federal environmental reviews of California WaterFix,” said Robin Swanson, of Californians for Water Security.

However, Congressman John Garamendi had other thoughts. “This is an outrageous attempt by the Secretary of the Interior to direct a scientific outcome,” he said.

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