California water officials plan to conduct the season's first snowpack survey Friday, which will likely confirm a proclamation last week that 2013 was the state's driest calendar year on record.
The Department of Water Resources' manual snow measurement will be conducted at 11 a.m. off Highway 50 near Echo Summit, north of Tuolumne County. The readings should be available to the public by early afternoon.
Earlier electronic readings indicate the water content in the snowpack is only about 20 percent of normal for this time of year. A water-condition report Nov. 30 showed that statewide precipitation was 35 percent of average to date, runoff was 55 percent and reservoir storage was 75 percent.
The same Nov. 30 report showed precipitation in the Northern Sierra was only 2.4 inches since the beginning of the 2014 Water Year, which runs annually from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30. That is about 26 percent of the average amount of precipitation for the season and only 5 percent of the average water year's total, roughly 41 inches.
The unusually dry weather is the result of high pressure over Northern California, which creates a barrier to normal storm flows off the Gulf of Alaska. Most storms have stayed in the Pacific Northwest and Canada as a result.
Friday's snowpack reading is expected to be far less than the 15.4 inches measured at this time last year, which was about 166 percent of average.
Several long-term weather forecasts - including the DWR's own experimental winter outlook - have predicted a third consecutive dry year and forced water officials to plan ahead for the worst outcome.
Gov. Jerry Brown has yet to make a formal statewide drought declaration, despite requests by various lawmakers. A declaration could prompt local agencies to conserve and state and federal agencies to consider easing up on water-use restrictions.
Brown instead has assembled a task force of experts from the DWR and other agencies to find ways of lessening the potential impacts another third dry year would have on the state.
Water managers at both Tuolumne Utilities District and Calaveras County Water District, the two largest water suppliers in the Mother Lode, have stated that a third consecutive dry year would likely prompt calls for voluntary conservation from customers as early as February, but not any mandatory requirements.
Some Central Valley cities, dependent on some of the state's large reservoirs for water, have already started requiring customers to conserve.
The city of Folsom issued a mandatory 20-percent water conservation order Monday, and Sacramento County has called on residents in unincorporated areas to voluntarily reduce their water use by the same amount.
Other valley cities are expected to make decisions on conservation measures sometime this month, after the year's water picture comes into better focus with the release of the first snowpack measurements.
New Melones Reservoir, which supplies water mostly to farmers for irrigation, is currently at about 43 percent of its total storage capacity, which is about 2.4 million acre-feet. That's 78 percent of the historical average for storage capacity at the man-made lake.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates about 340 dams in the United States, including New Melones, has considered reducing releases from Folsom Dam to ensure there's enough supply to last through the season.
Reclamation spokesman Steve Geissinger described managing the water level in the reservoirs as a balancing act, though he didn't specify whether the bureau is planning any changes to the releases at New Melones.
"We're drawing water from our reservoirs to keep the rivers flowing enough for environmental purposes, but at the same time trying to hold back as much as we possibly can for storage," he said.
"We're always looking at all of the pertinent factors, but we can't make it rain."
Other reservoirs in the area are reporting low water levels as well. Don Pedro Reservoir, the second-largest behind New Melones, was at 51 percent. Pardee Reservoir was at 88 percent of its max storage capacity, Camanche was 55 and New Hogan 33.
Water levels low,
but recreation still afloat
Melanie Lewis, owner of Glory Hole Sports, located just outside the Angels Camp entrance to the reservoir, said the current water elevation of 949 feet above sea level is actually almost 230 feet higher than the lowest she's ever seen it - which was in 1992.
"While it's significantly low and we want some snow, we'd be OK for another year," she said.
The level could impact boating on the lake if the water gets too low, Lewis said. It becomes too low to launch from the Tuttletown ramp at about 900 feet, and about 860 feet for the Glory Hole ramp, she said.
The low level can provide for some bountiful fishing opportunities, Lewis said, hopeful.
"To me, the fishing right now is really good because the fish are more compressed," she said.
Fish generally don't have as much success at spawning when levels are low so there aren't as many competing for food, which can make them grow to be larger than average, Lewis said.
Also, grass that grows along the typically submerged shores will be "hugely beneficial" as food and shelter for schools of recently hatched fish when water levels rise again.
"It's actually pretty healthy for the fishery, but nobody likes to hear that," Lewis said.
The low water levels could provide opportunities for scavengers to make some interesting finds as well.
Ruins of the town that was flooded when the reservoir was built - called Melones - become more exposed when the water is low, such as the old Highway 49 bridge, though Lewis said that's only when the level gets "really, really low."