Weather threatens California with drought |

Weather threatens California with drought

Matthew Renda
Lake Oroville levels dipped extremely low in 2009, the last time California declared a statewide drought. Federal officials sent a letter to Jerry Brown this week urging him to declare a statewide emergency.
Courtesy Department of Water Resources |

The specter of drought looms larger with each passing day, and officials are beginning to fret that a lack of rain in coming days and weeks could have disastrous consequences for the region’s agricultural industry.

“What I am hearing from our staff is that without additional precipitation, we are looking at a very severe effect,” said Nick Wilcox, a member of the Nevada Irrigation District board of directors, the water agency that distributes irrigated water to the majority of agricultural producers in Nevada County, and portions of Placer and Yuba counties. “The trends are not favorable; we are actually drafting water out of storage right now. That’s not good.”

NID’s reservoir levels are actually hovering around historical averages, as the agency is in much better shape than the rest of California. The most recent data from the California Department of Water shows that California’s major reservoirs — the Shasta Reservoir, Lake Oroville and the San Luis Reservoir ­— are hovering between 40 to 60 percent of historical averages.

While the recent storm that marched through Northern California was a welcome respite from aridity, it has done little to allay fears about the long-term forecasts of a third consecutive dry winter.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and U.S. Rep. Jim Costa sent a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown this week urging California’s leader to declare a statewide drought emergency.

“We are writing to urge you to take immediate action to address California’s dire water supply conditions by declaring a state drought emergency,” the letter, written by the two California-based federal officials, states.

The letter concedes that the state is still early in the water year but asserted that two dry years in 2012 and 2013 have depleted reservoirs and reduced carryover storage to their lowest level since 1977.

Regionally, the news is not good, and Wilcox said Sierra Foothills farmers and ranchers who rely on water for their livelihood have been calling NID to express concern.

“Of course, there is concern,” Wilcox said, adding that a committee of NID board members and staff will meet with local farmers to determine if a drought contingency plan will have to be enacted. “The farmers just don’t want us to wait too long so they can plan, so they can start conserving.”

At Thursday’s meeting of the Nevada City Council, representatives are tasked with approving the establishment of a Water Shortage Response Team and a Drought Technical Advisory Committee, as the city is a water provider to its residents.

The National Weather Service said there is no precipitation in the immediate forecast, although a storm carrying light rainfall may pass through Northern California next Wednesday.

The Northern Sierra 8-Station Index, which measures rain throughout Northern California, indicated about 15.5 inches of precipitation fell on the region during the calendar year 2013. While precipitation is usually measured according to the water year, which begins in October, the average for a calendar year is 41.6 inches.

If the dry weather persists, 2013 will go down as the driest year since record-keeping began in 1921. The lowest total on record is 17.76 inches in 1929, according to the weather service.

Long-term forecasts have predicted a dry year for all of California. The majority of the state’s rain falls in three months, accumulates in the Sierra snowpack and then melts incrementally, allowing water agencies to replenish reservoirs and water storage facilities.

The absence of a deep snowpack this winter would have severe impacts on California’s agricultural industry and would force its residents and visitors to adopt conservation techniques.

Feinstein and Costa further requested that Brown ask President Barack Obama for a broad federal disaster declaration.

Matthew Renda is a reporter with the Sun’s sister paper, The Union in Grass Valley. Union reporter Christopher Rosacker contributed to this story.

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