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Multiple dry years mean drought for Nevada County

Flood at Highway 49 in December 2012.
Matthew Renda/mrenda@theunion.com | Matthew Renda/mrenda@theunion.co

Precipitation is headed for Nevada County, finally, but that belies the worry expressed by several weather officials that the 2014 water year could be the third consecutive dry year, ushering in a drought that may be widespread throughout the state.

A storm set to drop anywhere from half a foot to a full foot of snow is badly needed in parched Nevada County, but more crucial is laying a foundational snowpack that provides the foothills and the majority of California with its water.

The build-up of the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada is critical to supplying water for residential drinking purposes, for agricultural, for fire departments and all of water’s multi-faceted use.



“The Sierra Nevada provides an invaluable service by capturing a tremendous amount of precipitation as snow and storing it as snowpack for gradual release through the spring into scores of supporting reservoirs for distribution to the rest of the state,” states a study performed by the Sierra Nevada Conservancy.

For the past two years, the April 1 snowpack measurement has been well below normal, with last year’s measurement coming in at less than half of normal.




April 1 is the most important snow measurement of the year because, generally speaking, most of the year’s snow has fallen by then and little snow has begun to melt, the SNC study states — although the study notes data trends show the snowpack has begun melting earlier.

In California, half of the statewide precipitation occurs within a three-month window, December to February.

As a result, the annual water supply of the entire state is dictated by a handful of storms, as only two or three storms or their absence can shift the balance between a wet and a dry year, said Jeanine Jones, an Interstate Resources Manager for the DWR.

The 2014 water year is not shaping up to be the wet year that Californians are hoping for, according to an experimental forecast conducted by Dr. Klaus Wolter of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Services at the University of Colorado.

Wolter predicted mostly dry conditions for all of California, with aridity being especially likely in the southern portion of the state.

However, the forecaster did predict a possible El Nino condition that could bring wetter weather toward the latter portion of the water year.

However, the news is not good.

Reservoir levels are down across the state, according to the latest available measurements.

Lake Oroville reservoir is at 41 percent of capacity and 66 percent of its historical average, according to the DWR.

Shasta Reservoir is at 37 percent of capacity and 61 percent of the historical average.

In Southern California, the picture is even worse, meaning the demand for water that is stored in Northern California and the Sierra will be greater.

Pine Flat Reservoir is at 17 percent of its capacity and 45 percent of its historical average.

Jones said it could be worse, as the atmospheric river storm that happened about one year ago brought so much precipitation that reservoirs are not as low as last year’s snowpack would seem to indicate.

Water years 2012 and 2013 were both dry, but their precipitation patterns were complete opposites, Jones said. Water year 2012 began with record dry conditions, setting a record for the latest closing date for the Tioga Pass highway due to the absence of significant snow until January.

Water year 2013 began record wet in Northern California, but then turned record dry from January on.

“Mother Nature likes to fool people,” Jones said.

One unpredictable variable continues to be a atmospheric river event, when storm systems from the south and north collide and disgorge tremendous amounts of precipitation over a slim increment of time.

“Atmospheric river storms are a wildcard in this forecast,” Wolter said.

Due to the dry start to the year, while holding out hope that the rain and snow will fall, water officials are urging caution and conservation until more is known.

“We hope things improve with this winter’s storms,” said DWR Director Mark Cowin, “but there is no guarantee that 2014 won’t be our third consecutive dry year. (It) is a stark reminder that California’s fickle weather demands that we make year-round conservation a way of life.”

To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email mrenda@theunion.com or call 530-477-4239.


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