Most of Californians opened 2014 the same way they spent 2013: scanning the sky for signs of rain and snow. More than half of their precipitation typically falls in three months: December, January and February. With virtually nothing in the rain gauge for December, what happens over the next few months will be critical to all aspects of life in California.
Low water levels leave much of Folsom Lake, east of Sacramento, looking like a mud flat. (Dan Brekke)
All Eyes on the Sierra
Water managers are keeping a wary eye on the Sierra Nevada snowpack. Snow that accumulates in the Sierra accounts for about a third of the state’s water supply. This winter, water content of the snowpack is a small fraction of what’s considered normal.
Officials are also watching key reservoirs that supply the complicated plumbing that carries water to farms and cities throughout the state. Reservoirs are dropping this winter without the benefit of much recharge from winter rain and snowfall. Last winter was dry, too, especially the latter part. That means when spring arrives, there will be little carryover supply to help get us through the summer.
Some cities and water districts have already begun announcing water restrictions, both voluntary and mandatory. The state’s $45 billion agricultural sector faces severe cuts in water supply, too, which could mean acreage taken out of production, higher food prices and high unemployment in farm communities. Scant rainfall is raising the possibility of nearly unheard-of winter wildfires and adding a new threat for endangered salmon.
Gov. Jerry Brown declared an official statewide drought on Friday, January 17, and called for a voluntary statewide reduction in water consumption. The drought declaration outlines 20 steps, some mandatory, some merely advisory, to meet water shortages that have already started to impact many communities in the state.