Recent storms have added to the Sierra snowpack and increased water runoff into aqueducts and reservoirs, turning what had been viewed as a critical water outlook into merely a dry one, state water officials said Thursday.
However, experts with the Department of Water Resources and those who oversee delivery of water to Southern California cautioned that the recent storms did not carry enough moisture to keep this from being California's driest winter since the drought of 1977.
"Overall, there is going to be ample water for most of the water purveyors to make their deliveries," said William J. Helms, spokesman for the state flood operations center. "But they are not going to have any extra water."
Significantly, the state's so-called four-river basin index, which measures the amount of runoff into rivers that feed the California Aqueduct system, was upgraded in recent days from "critical" to "dry." Unless rainfall suddenly tapers off, state water officials say, that means there is little chance of a drought this year.
But Jack Pardee, who heads the state's snow survey operations, warned that a drought normally takes two years to develop. With reserves at a low point, he said, a real problem could develop in 1988 unless next year brings more wet weather.
"What we are hoping for is normal or above-normal precipitation next year," Pardee said.
Specifically, the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which stood at 35% of normal in most key watershed areas in mid-February, is now at about 60% of normal, Pardee said. Meanwhile, runoff into the key rivers that feed the California Aqueduct, as well as Northern California communities, increased about 5%.
The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies water to customers from Ventura County to the Mexican border, is not expected to experience any serious problems this year, spokesman Tim Skrove said. That is mainly because the district receives much of its water from the Colorado River, which is experiencing a surplus and has been able to make up much of the district's water deficit.
But Skrove cautioned that there may be less Colorado River water available next year, forcing the MWD to rely on less predictable water flows from the north.
The immediate situation still appears worrisome for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. It obtains 75% of its water supplies from the Owens Valley and the eastern Sierra where the snowpack has been light and relatively dry.
To make up for its immediate shortfall, the city is buying more water from the MWD. But no one is sure how long that will last.