A series of wintry storms, arriving in late November and carrying through Wednesday, have put a big dent into California's three-year drought.
The state Department of Water Resources on Wednesday put the Sierra snowpack at 197 percent of average for this time of year in terms of water content.
The accumulation is already approaching 60 percent of the average
total for the entire season, which runs from Nov. 1 through April 1,
said Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys
Both the Tuolumne and Merced river watersheds, as of Tuesday, are
at 67 percent of the average snow pack accumulation for the season,
while the Stanislaus River watershed is at about 45 percent, according
These percentages are about twice what they were this time last year, he said.
He noted the location and volume of the snowfall is unusual.
"These storms tend to be focused on the Central and Southern
Sierra," he said. "The concern is, this is such an unusual pattern."
The United States is currently in a La Nina weather pattern,
distinguished by a buildup of cooler-than-normal subsurface waters in
the tropical Pacific. La Nina usually indicates a dry winter in
Northern California, as opposed to an El Nino situation, where
warmer-than-normal water temperatures indicate a wet winter.
"(This) would lead you to think we're in a dry winter," Gehrke
said. "We're kind of baffled at storms of this magnitude. It doesn't
really fit the pattern well."
The extra snowfall is good news for water planners, farmers and
cities. That's because the snowpack feeds the state's system of
reservoirs and canals that provide most of California's water between
late spring and early fall.
On Dec. 17, the DWR increased its 2011 projected deliveries of
State Water Project water to 50 percent of contractors' requests. The
DWR supplies water to 29 public agencies who serve 25 million
Californians and close to 1 million acres of irrigated farmland.
This time last year, coming off a three-year drought, DWR projected
it could meet only 5 percent of requests, although it ultimately met 50
"This is very good news after the 2007-2009 drought, from which
we're still recovering," said DWR Director Mark Cowin. "We don't want
to be overly optimistic with most of the winter ahead of us, but recent
storms have given us the best early season water supply outlook in five
New Melones Reservoir, with a capacity of 2.4 million acre-feet, is
now filled to 1.4 million acre-feet - 88 percent above the normal over
15 years, according to Pete Lucero, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of
The bureau operates a half-dozen major California reservoirs,
including New Melones, which serve the bulk of the state's urban and
farm water needs.
"We're managing our operations as it relates to how these storms perform and what their runoff will do," Lucero said.
Although New Melones is not yet in flood-operation mode, two
California reservoirs are lowering water levels in wake of the storms.
Shasta Reservoir is releasing at about 15,000 cubic-feet per second and
Folsom Reservoir is releasing at about 20,000 cubic-feet per second,
"We've got plenty of space to receive any inflows from the storm
we've been having," Lucero said, referring to New Melones Reservoir.
According to Maury Roos, DWR's chief hydrologist, California has
already received 59 percent of average seasonal snow pack. And we are
only two months into a season ending on April 1.
"I think hydrologically speaking," Roos said, "we're in the best shape we've been in, in terms of drought."
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