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Feast or Famine: 2017 Storm Totals

When it rains, it pours, but what does all this water mean in the long run?
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2017 has been a doozy. A “Well sonny, way back in ‘17, by the time we finished shoveling it was time to start shoveling again” kind of doozy, and when we haven’t been shoveling we’ve been sandbagging. Be careful what you wish for, eh? When the meteorological needle goes haywire, like it has the last month and a half here in California, the word “record” gets thrown around a lot; record snowfall, record precipitation, record flooding, that sort of thing. But has it really been a record year so far? And what does this mean for the drought plaguing California over the last few years? As this last storm winds down we’ve gathered some info to quantify what we’ve been dealing with following #januburied and the beginning of #flooduary (Not a trending tag yet but we’ve always been trailblazers here at Moonshine Ink).

Waterworld

  • So far the Lake Tahoe Basin has received 51.05 inches of precipitation and that’s compared to a 21.95 in average at this time of the year.
  • The Truckee River has been running at 366 percent of its average flow to date, and peaked for this last storm just after midnight on Feb. 9 well below flood stage at the Farad gauge.
  • Lake Tahoe, which has sat below its natural rim for much of the last few years, is now at 110 percent of its average storage, and is currently at 6,225.7 feet above sea level (2.7 feet above the natural rim), according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS) website.

Snow

  • The Lake Tahoe Basin is currently at 252 percent of its average snowpack at this time of year.
  • Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows has received approximately 329 inches (that’s over 27 feet) of snow this season.
  • Days spent on specific danger levels of the Sierra Avalanche Center’s advisories:
    • Low (generally safe conditions): seven
    • Moderate (heightened conditions): 13
    • Considerable (dangerous conditions): 11
    • High (very dangerous conditions): seven
    • Extreme (avoid all avalanche conditions): one

Data courtesy California Nevada River Forecast Center, USGS, On The Snow

Are we still in a drought?

Perhaps this is the wrong question. A drought is a period of drier than normal conditions that leads to water-related problems. While it has been pouring proverbial cats and dogs to the point that California’s reservoirs are filling rapidly to capacity, is this enough to pat ourselves on the back for beating out the drought and weathering the storms — and lack thereof? Or maybe the better question is how should California adapt its drought measures when California seems to be out of the woods.

On Feb. 9, in the middle of a slew of flood warnings, the State Water Resources Control Board voted to extend its existing water conservation regulations.

“These regulations have helped Californians rise to the occasion and show what they can do with conservation, while providing flexibility based on differing local water supply conditions across the state,” said SWRC Board Chair Felicia Marcus. “We are beyond happy that water conditions continue to improve this year, but the rainy season isn’t over yet and some areas of the state continue to suffer significant drought impacts. As glorious as the first half of the season has been, we know that weather can change quickly, and vary depending on where you are, so it is most prudent to wait a bit longer until close of the rainy season to take stock of the statewide situation and decide what to do next.”

The regulations themselves continue the “stress test” approach — a monitoring program set up to determine whether certain localities had enough water access to weather three additional years of potential drought — and maintain existing water use reporting requirements and sensible prohibitions on wasteful water use practices — such as watering your lawn during a rainstorm. The regulation does not currently require mandatory conservation unless water suppliers determine they have a shortfall.

Senator Ted Gaines (R-El Dorado) met this news with a press release condemning the Water Board’s decision as a power play for the “environmentalist agenda.”

“There has been so much talk about “sanctuary cities” and “sanctuary states” lately, all relating to immigration. But now I’m convinced that California citizens need a sanctuary from unelected bureaucrats who won’t call off the drought when people are all but having to canoe to work because of the rain,” Gaines said. “The state needs to waive every rule, expend every dollar it has to get Sites Reservoir built and complete other surface storage projects so we can bank more of this water instead of letting it run out into the sea. Even a Sacramento bureaucrat with an agenda couldn’t fail to see the drought is over if we have more reservoirs filled to the brim.”

California’s reservoirs are currently at 121.04 percent of their average capacity at this time of year, which is certainly good news, but reservoirs only provide one source of California’s total water usage. Groundwater, which provides about 50 percent of the Central Valley’s water supply, is diminishing at a steady average rate of 1.85 cubic kilometers of water per year since 1960 to satisfy California’s immense agricultural needs, and almost double that rate over the last few years. Regional snowpack, which provides about one-third of the water used by California’s cities and farms, is at 182 percent of normal. According to the USGS, what happens to the snowpack over the next few months will be very important in determining its effect on California’s water supply as this is when the snowpack is normally at its peak and begins to melt into streams and reservoirs.

 
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May 12, 2017