California drought will continue after dry winter

January and February this year were the driest months on record in most parts of California, and state water officials are now sounding the alarm for a third year of severe drought, shrinking water supplies and the growing threat of extreme wildfires.

California’s Department of Water Resources said Tuesday that statewide snow cover has shrunk to 63% of the average for this time of year after an exceptionally dry start to the year.

That sobering assessment came during the third snowpack survey of the season at Phillips Station near South Lake Tahoe. The reading marked a decline from the first survey in late December – when nationwide snowpack was 160% of the average – and from the second survey last month when it measured 92% of the average.

“That’s not enough to fill our reservoirs,” said Sean de Guzman, head of snow measurement at the DWR. “With no significant storms on the horizon, we can say with certainty that we will end this year dry and extend this drought for a third year.”

California’s water year runs from October 1st to September 30th. De Guzman said the past two months have been the driest consecutive January and February on record in the Sierra Nevada.

The results are particularly concerning as these months are typically the core of California’s rainy season. Traditionally, the Sierra’s snowpack serves as a natural reservoir, providing about one-third of California’s water.

Snow cover at Phillips Station was 68% of the average for this time of year, with a snow water equivalent of 16 inches, de Guzman said. But not only the Sierra feels the drought.

During a meeting of the state Water Resources Control Board on Tuesday, Deputy Director Erik Ekdahl compared January and February rainfall in the Central Valley to that of other critically dry years in California history. Even during the drought years of 1976-77, the Central Valley gained about 15 inches of rainfall during those months, he said. In 2013 it was 7.5 inches. This year it’s 2.4 inches.

“It’s by far the driest January-February period in California’s more than 100-year record, almost on the order of four,” Ekdahl said. “We’re starting in a pretty bad place.”

In fact, almost every part of the state has seen below-average rainfall this year, with many areas seeing almost no humidity at all.

The California Department of Water Resources announced that statewide snow cover had shrunk to 63% of the average

California’s Department of Water Resources said Tuesday that statewide snow cover had fallen to 63% of the average for this time of year.

(Kenneth James/Associated Press)

National Weather Service meteorologist Drew Peterson said San Francisco recorded its driest January and February on record, with just under 0.65 inches of rainfall over the past two months. The Eight-Station Northern Sierra Index, a collection of weather stations in Northern California, gained 1.74 inches, also the driest stretch from January through February.

“For many places, it’s the driest on record,” Peterson said.

What’s more, the Sacramento area was on Tuesday ready to break his record for the longest stretch of dry weather during the rainy season – 53 consecutive days without rain, officials said.

The Los Angeles area did slightly better with a quarter inch in January and February. But that was still just 4% of normal and the fourth driest start to the year since records began in 1877.

“It’s well below normal,” said David Sweet, meteorologist at the Oxnard Weather Service. “February is usually our wettest month of the year, and we’ve got 0.06 inches — it’s pathetic.”

The bone-dry months follow the driest 22-year period to sweep the American Southwest in 1,200 years — a mega-drought that researchers say has been greatly intensified by climate change and greenhouse gas releases.

Many have warned the dangers are likely to only worsen, with a landmark United Nations climate report this week sketching a future of even more intense droughts, wildfires and heatwaves – among other consequences – unless nations act urgently.

The current drought has already hit the country’s reservoirs hard. Lake Shasta, California’s largest reservoir, is now at 37% of its average capacity for this time of year, according to state data. The second largest reservoir, Oroville, was at 47%.

The numbers could potentially affect the state’s water supply. Water utilities in Southern California have already been told to expect only 15% of their full allotments from the State Water Project this year, and the federal government has put the Central Valley on alert that it may receive minimal to no water from the U.S. Bureau for reclamation.

“With just a month left in California’s rainy season and no major storms in the forecast, Californians should plan for a third year of drought conditions,” DWR Director Karla Nemeth said in a statement. “Significantly below average snow cover combined with already low reservoirs makes it critical that all Californians conserve water every day to help the state weather severe drought challenges.”

The drought also spells trouble for California’s wildfires. Already this year, dry vegetation and strong winds have contributed to a handful of unusually early fires.

Peterson, the weather forecaster, said the dry start to the year only dried the vegetation further.

“All we’ve done with this very wet start and dry end to the water year is put more fuel on that fire,” he said.

A fourth snowpack survey will be conducted on March 30th.

“We’re well below normal conditions,” said de Guzman. “Barring an unforeseen ‘miracle march’, which we don’t really see coming, we will end the year underperforming.”

While some parts of the state, including Los Angeles, are expected to rain later this week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s latest monthly precipitation forecast promises no measurable humidity in California in the coming weeks. California drought will continue after dry winter

Tom Vazquez

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