California drought update: Mountain snowpack at 38% of average, data shows

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California is experiencing one of the driest early springs in decades, data released Friday showed, and absent a heavy dose of April and May showers, the drought of the condition will worsen and it could lead to stricter rules on water use and another devastating wildfire season.

New readings showed that the water in the snowpack of the California mountains was 38% of average. This is the lowest score since the end of the last drought in 2015; only twice since 1988 has the level been lower.

RELATED: Data shows driest January, February and March in California history despite recent Bay Area rains

State officials highlighted the severity of the drought while at a snow-gauging station south of Lake Tahoe, where the landscape featured more grass than snow.

“You don’t need more evidence than standing here on this very dry landscape to understand some of the challenges we face here in California,” said Karla Nemeth, director of the California Department of Water Resources. “All Californians need to do their part.”

About a third of California’s water supply comes from snow that melts and runs off into rivers and reservoirs. April 1 is when the snowpack is typically at its peak, and the date is used as a benchmark to predict the state’s water supply during the driest and hottest spring and summer months.

RELATED: Bay Area, Rest of California Falls Short of Governor Newsom’s Voluntary 15% Water Conservation Goal

According to the State Department of Water Resources, there are about 11 inches (28 centimeters) of water in the Sierra Nevada snow along California’s eastern edge. It’s the lowest reading since the depth of the last drought seven years ago, when California ended winter with just 5% of normal water levels in the mountains.

“Some may say this is a red flag, I disagree,” California Department of Water Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot said. “The alarm has already gone off.”

The numbers mark a disappointing end to the California winter, which began with heavy December storms that brought snowfall to 160% of average. But there has been little rainfall since January 1.

A storm that brought significant rain and snow to parts of the state earlier in the week did little to change the course of the drought. And warmer-than-usual temperatures caused snow to melt and evaporate faster than normal, state officials said.

“This has a big impact on our water supply here in Santa Clara County,” said Matt Keller of the Santa Clara Valley Water District.

Keller said we rely on more than half of our water coming from outside our county, including the snowpack.

So as the warmer months approach, it’s up to the community to do their part.

“The steps we need to take are to reduce outdoor watering,” Keller said. “It’s the largest water use in Santa Clara County.”

About half of the water used in the county is outdoors.

What is even more concerning is that people actually used more water during this dry winter period.

RELATED: CA drought to worsen this spring with warmer temperatures, lack of rain, NOAA says

“Moving forward, everything is on the table for our Board of Directors to evaluate and decide what steps to take to protect our water supply here in Santa Clara County,” Keller said.

These measures could include an increase in water tariffs.

By binding it to the snowpack, with less water in the state, it will cost more to buy.

This means that if you don’t save now, you will literally pay later.

“The reality is that if you use less water, you’ll pay less on your water bill,” Keller said. “If you use more water, you will pay more on your water bill.”

Now is the time to take action as we anticipate drier conditions in the future.

According to the US Drought Monitor, nearly all of California and much of the western United States is experiencing severe to extreme drought. Last July, California Governor Gavin Newsom asked people to cut their water use by 15% from 2020 levels, but so far consumption has only dropped by 6%.

The continuing drought has prompted state officials to call on cities and other local water providers to step up their conservation plans. Local governments can take action by further restricting when people can water their lawns and wash their cars, limiting the use of water for decorative or ornamental purposes, and stepping up enforcement against people who run sprinklers on sidewalks or engage in other wasteful behavior.

Meanwhile, federal officials announced Friday that municipal and industrial users who rely on water from the Central Valley project will receive less than expected. The project is a 400 mile (644 kilometer) system of reservoirs, canals and dams that store and supply water in the central part of the state.

About 70 of the project’s 270 contractors receive water for domestic and business use in the agricultural region that includes greater Sacramento and San Francisco Bay. They were told to expect 25% of their requested supply earlier this year, but the US Bureau of Reclamation now says they will only get what is needed for critical activities such as drinking and bathing. Much of the urban water use is for outdoor landscaping.

Farmers who depend on water from the federal project were told earlier this year not to expect water.

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