For the first time in nearly two years, Tuolumne and Calaveras counties are not considered to be in the worst category of drought.
The U.S. Drought Monitor released a weekly update Thursday that reduced the category of drought in both counties from D4 (exceptional) to D3 (extreme), citing the best snowpack in the past five years and improved reservoir levels.
Cindy Matthews, senior service hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Sacramento, stated in an email that the D4 category is reserved for the top-two percentiles of worst drought conditions.
While this year’s snowpack and precipitation did not fit into that category, that doesn’t mean the local drought conditions aren’t severe.
“For those who worry that it looks like we’ve lessened the depiction of the drought, remember that the D3 — Extreme Drought category still indicates bad drought conditions,” she stated. “In fact, it is an indicator of conditions in the worst three to five percentiles on record.”
Tuolumne Utilities District, the county’s largest water purveyor, announced last month that the amount of snow received in the South Fork Stanislaus River watershed this winter will surely replenish both Pinecrest and Lyons reservoirs.
The reservoirs can hold a combined maximum of 23,500 acre feet to meet the annual needs of TUD’s 14,000 customers.
District spokeswoman Lisa Westbrook said that Pinecrest Reservoir, which has a maximum storage capacity of about 18,000 acre feet, was at 16,736 acre feet Thursday. Lyons Reservoir, which has a maximum capacity of about 5,500 acre feet, was at 4,134.
Some have reported Lyons already spilling, which is when it becomes so full that water spills over the lip of the dam, but Westbrook said they were actually witnessing water flowing through the dam’s gates.
“There is a lot of snowmelt due to warm conditions with water flowing into Lyons,” she said.
There’s no prediction as to when Pinecrest will stop spilling and the district will coast through Labor Day on water stored in the much smaller Lyons. In a normal year, it would happen around late June or early July.
The district submitted a request this week asking the State Water Resources Control Board to rescind TUD’s emergency water regulations, including a requirement to conserve 21 percent over the water usage in 2013.
Westbrook said many others throughout the state are asking the same thing.
“We know that our water supply this year is fine,” she said. “With that in mind and all of the conservation our customers have been doing in the past, we feel there is no emergency in our area and ask them to rescind the regulations.”
From June 2015 to February, TUD customers helped the district conserve 31.7 percent over the amount of water used during the same period in 2013-14. The state had required the district to conserve 24 percent.
On Tuesday, the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors also approved sending a letter to the State Water Board supporting TUD’s request for relief.
The board is expected to consider the comments and requests by the various water agencies and make a recommendation by May 18.
Westbrook acknowledged that it can be confusing for some to hear that the district’s water supply is OK while the county is still categorized in “extreme drought,” but that’s the reality of relying on a water system that resets its supply each year due to the lack of additional storage capacity.
“Of course we’d like more storage in the future, but it resets every year,” she said. “Like every year, we’ll start planning in the fall and get ready for next season.”