It Was a Very Good Month, but It Didn’t End Drought : Water: A near-supernatural occurrence is needed between now and end of April to end crisis, officials say.


Disc jockeys spoof it. Stand-up comics use it to refresh their jokes. Residents scratch their heads in disbelief as they see water cascading down their window panes.

Newscasters report mudslides and flash floods and warn of avalanches. Umbrella sales are up. And business prospects for nurseries are improving.

But still state and federal officials won’t budge: the Five-Year Drought isn’t over.

Although it seems ridiculous to residents who have been mopping rain off their doorways for the last month, state officials predict 1991 will go down as not just dry but critically dry. For 1991 to be the year that broke the drought, it would take something close to a supernatural occurrence between now and the end of April, they say.

Despite the March storms, California’s rainfall, snowfall and runoff for the year are still well below average. Precipitation in the four Northern California river basins that feed the major state and federal reservoirs is still only 61% of average. In October, at the beginning of the water year, officials estimated they would need precipitation to be at least 110% to 120% of average to bring reservoirs back to normal.


Even worse, the storms came at the wrong time. By arriving in one big chunk in March, they came too late to fill a critical reservoir that serves Southern California.

“We’ve added a very good month to what was basically going to be the worst year on record in terms of runoff, but it’s almost too little too late,” said Department of Water Resources hydrologist Gary Hester. “Even though it’s been one of the wettest Marches ever, it’s just that we had too far to come.”

David Kennedy, the department’s mild-mannered director, who is most likely to determine the magic moment when “it’s over,” has a terse answer for those who question him about the end of the drought. “It’s not likely to happen this year,” he says.

For the misery of the dry spell to end, Kennedy and federal officials said there would have to be enough water in the system to allow resumption of full deliveries to cities and farms. And before they will let that happen, and given the experience of four years of drought, they said, severely depleted reservoir storage would have to return to their statistically calculated normal levels. For reservoir levels to be considered normal, state officials don’t necessarily mean they have to be filled to capacity or even three-quarters full, just at the levels they would be at in a normal rainfall year.

Given usual April weather patterns and the amount of snow that is stacked up in the mountains, Kennedy said, that is not probable.

“We would need to almost double the storage we now have in our reservoirs to feel that the drought is over,” said Jeff McCracken, regional director of public information for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the Central Valley Project. The latest figures show federal reservoir storage now at 4.5-million acre-feet, when normal storage for this time of year is 8 or 9 million acre-feet.

In the state system, there are two big reservoirs that determine if it’s go or no-go for water deliveries: Oroville, on the Feather River in Northern California, and San Luis, next to the California Aqueduct just below the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Neither offers much hope for a return to the days when Californians could linger in the shower without guilt or fill their swimming pools without fear of engendering neighborhood hostility.

Kennedy said Oroville now holds about 35% of capacity and San Luis about 30% of capacity. By this time in a normal water year, he said, San Luis would be full and Oroville would be at about 70% of capacity.

“The measure of water supplies depends on how much water we have in storage, and the amount that is in Oroville and San Luis is still very low,” Kennedy said.

Only a month ago, state officials said water conditions were so severe they would have to cut deliveries to urban customers by 90%, and to most agricultural customers by 100%. Federal officials followed with an announcement that most of their agricultural deliveries would be reduced 75% and urban deliveries between 50% and 75%.

Now, in the aftermath of the March rains, both federal and state officials said they expect in April to announce some additional increase in deliveries, but nothing approaching normal.

“We still don’t see any way we can deliver any (water) to our farmers,” said Kennedy, adding that even an extremely wet April would probably boost urban deliveries to only 35% of normal.

These explanations, however, have done little to mollify many drought-weary Californians.

“People look outside their windows and see the rain, but they don’t see the reservoirs which are still not nearly full,” said Franz Wisner, a spokesman for Gov. Pete Wilson.

Indeed, in Marin County, residents who have been leaping puddles for weeks now have begun wondering when the Marin Municipal Water District will scale back its harsh rationing program, which allows each person just 50 gallons of water a day and is the strictest in the state.

Jane Lindsey, who tends bar at the 2 A.M. Club in Mill Valley, said patrons have been “grumbling for a week or so and asking how much longer this rationing stuff can go on.”

“I feel that the rationing is completely unnecessary at this point and is simply a way to make money for the water district,” Lindsey said, noting that excess water usage by customers is pouring money from fines into district coffers. “It’s been raining nonstop up here. This is a farce.”

In Southern California, attorney Larry Weitzman of Chatsworth agrees and insists that water managers throughout the state are overstating the crisis in order to justify the higher rates many drought-afflicted districts are charging customers.

“It’s ludicrous,” said Weitzman, who has been forced by rationing to reduce water usage on his Chatsworth ranch by 10%. “The fact is, this drought is over. It’s over. The politicians and bureaucrats won’t admit it, and are acting like this is the last time it’s ever going to rain in California. That’s because they want to raise our rates.”

His assertion is enough to make a state water bureaucrat blanch.

“It’s not over,” Larry Mullnix, a Water Resources Department deputy director, said emphatically. “It’s not over because we’ve only had one month--March--in which there is substantial precipitation in both rain and snow, and that does not make up for the lack of precipitation that we had in November, December, January and February. All it did was allow us to start recovering, but we’ve got a long way to go.”

The snowpack, even though it piled up in drifts at the ski resorts over the weekend, is not enough. It has about 20.6 inches of total water content--about 73% of average for this time of year.

“Things have improved dramatically,” Hester said. “But the question now is, ‘Has the hole we were in at the end of February been filled?’ And the answer is, ‘No, it hasn’t.’ ”

Hester said that because of the 4 1/2 years of drought that preceded 1991, this year’s rain and snowfall will produce even less runoff to fill the reservoirs--less than 50% of normal.

With the ground bone-dry, Hester said, the rains that preceded the March deluge soaked into the ground and produced just a trickle of runoff. Before a substantial runoff could flow into the reservoirs, the ground had to be thoroughly soaked, he said. Likewise, high in the Sierra, the ground is still dry, so when the snow melts much of it will be absorbed.

Even if California gets an exorbitant amount of rain in April and May, when the rainy season officially ends, quirks in the state’s water system prevent the rains from pulling the state out of its prolonged dry spell, Mullnix said.

And no matter what happens from now on, it will be impossible for the state to fill the San Luis Reservoir this year, Mullnix said.

Situated just below the delta, San Luis depends on giant pumps to suck water into the reservoir that is so critical to Southern California water supplies. But because the delta is also home and hotel to numerous species of fish and wildlife--some of which are threatened with extinction--how much water can be pumped from the delta, and when, is often governed by environmental concerns.

In normal winters, the rains come regularly in December, January and February, and with each rain, the pumps run around the clock at full capacity. But this year, those months were so dry that the state was prevented from pumping because a certain amount of freshwater had to be kept in the delta to hold back saltwater that tries to intrude from San Francisco Bay.

As a result, Mullnix said, the pumps did not run full bore until early March. By then, he said, because of mechanical limitations, they could not get enough water to fill San Luis even if they ran all day every day in March and April.

Larry Gage, who directs the operation of the State Water Project for the Water Resources Department, said the state is required to curtail pumping in May and June to protect striped bass, which spawn in those months, from being sucked into the huge machinery.

Similarly the quirks of nature, and man, have affected San Francisco, where water shortages are expected to continue despite the abundant March precipitation.

Officials in San Francisco say the Hetch Hetchy reservoir system, which supplies water for 2.4 million people in the Bay Area, is just 37% of its normal level.

“We’ve had the wettest March on record at Hetch Hetchy, but that’s on top of the driest October through February we’ve ever had,” lamented Leo Bauer, manager of water resources for the city’s Public Utilities Commission.

Bauer said the snowpack water content near Hetch Hetchy has improved markedly--from about 10% of normal one month ago to more than 60% of normal today. But because of peculiarities in contracts dividing the runoff from the mountains feeding the reservoirs, Hetch Hetchy may get only a small portion of the spring melt.

Officials said Hetch Hetchy receives only whatever water is left over after downstream users--namely, the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts--take enough to satisfy their water rights.

“It’s not as if there is half a pie and we divide that equally,” Bauer said. “They (downstream users) were there first, so they take what they’re entitled to during a certain period and we get what’s left over.”

Bauer said the equation is difficult to explain to consumers.

“Obviously people are scratching their heads and watching the floods and saying ‘You’ve got to be kidding. The drought’s over.’ But we feel that kind of thinking is premature,” he said.

California Drought Watch: A monthly look at the water shortage

Now being referred to as a “miracle” month, March’s rainfall has prevented 1991 from going down in history as the driest year on record. At the same time, it has failed to push the state above the critical level. Precipitation for the season measured at the Sacramento River Basin in now at 60% of normal, with about two-thirds of that falling in March alone. Precipitation in the Eastern Sierra was 10% of normal in February and is now at more than 70% of normal.

Coastal rainfall yardstick (As of March 29) A. Santa Barbara: 132% of normal B. Ventura: 120% of normal C. San Francisco: 73% of normal D. Los Angeles: 90% of normal E. San Diego: 144% of normal F. Santa Ana: 102% of normal Sacramento River Basin Driest season on record (1977): 11.3" Precipitation this season: 25.9" Precipitation in normal season: 42.9" Eastern Sierra* Driest season on record (1977): 9.0" Precipitation this season: 29.3" Precipitation in normal season: 41.0" Colorado River: A feared 25% reduction in Colorado River allocations will not happen this year, ensuring that Southern California will get the same amount it did in 1990. Although runoff into the river is estimated at 54% of normal, water is plentiful enough to continue sending states their allocations for the next few years.

The Bottom Line: While substantial, March rainfall has not ended the drought. To reach normal precipitation levels for the year, 26 more inches of rain would need to fall in the Sacramento River Basin, the main source of water for the state. In the highly unlikely event that normal rainfall levels for the year are achieved, it will still not be enough to replenish reservoirs and ground water reserves depleted over the course of the drought.

Water-Saving Tip

Fix leaks in your home or business. A trickle can waste 90 gallons a day, or 2,700 gallons a month. A drip can waste 50 gallons a day, or 1,500 gallons a month.

Viewpoint: “Great rain in one month cannot make up for five dry months following four dry years.” --Bill Helms of the State Drought Center in Sacramento

What a Difference a Month of Rain Makes

Sure, the drought is not over. But look at what March’s incredible rainfall and snowfall did accomplish:

* Many areas of the state, including San Diego, Ventura and Fresno, surpassed their normal rainfall amounts for the year. Los Angeles was on the verge as the month ended.

* Ventura and Chico set records for rainfall in the month of March.

* State and local water suppliers started talking about easing cutbacks on deliveries come next month. Water districts in some places began easing water use restrictions.

* Los Angeles was spared an increase from 10%-15% water rationing to 25%-at least for the time being.

* Recreational outlets at lakes and ski resorts were suddenly flush with business.

* Santa Barbara, its tourism hurt by the image of landscapes turned golden for the lack of water, has hills of green again.

The Drought File

Deja Vu: In March, 1989, also a drought year, precipitation in Northern California was 250% of normal, or 17.8 inches. This March it is 250% again, 17.9 inches.

Handel on the Drought: In recognition of the water shortage, radio station KKHI in San Francisco plays classical music with a water theme every afternoon.

Thirsty Farms: Agriculture consumes 80% of the state’s water allocations, but makes up only 2.5% of California’s overall economy.

Gulp: Gov. Pete Wilson and the mayors of San Francisco and San Diego were hit with media reports this month uncovering what appeared to be excessive water use at their homes.

Source: California Dept. of Water Resources, Santa Barbara Dept. of Water, Johnston Weather Watch, Los Angeles Dept. of Water and Power.


California has never had four critically dry years in a single drought span, at least not since officials began keeping such records. The closest the state came was during the 1928-1934 drought, when two of the years in that span were declared critically dry. The current five-year drought has already made history. Authorities have declared 1987, 1988 and 1990 critically dry years and they predict that 1991 will be classified as critically dry as well. State officials define a dry year as one with a Sacramento River Basin runoff forecast (the Sacramento River Index) of 12.5 million acre-feet of water or less, and a critically dry year as 10.2 million acre-feet of water or less. The Department of Water Resources says that so far, the Sacramento River runoff forecast for 1991 is 8.9 million acre-feet. The runoff level for the years 1987, 1988 and 1990 was 9.2 million acre-feet. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons.


This weekend, surveyors are trekking through the wilderness on cross-country skis, measuring the snowpack at 311 alpine stations between the Klamath River and the San Bernardino Mountains. Thrusting an aluminum tube through a drift at each stop, surveyors extract a core sample of snow and then weigh it to determine the water content. The data enables officials to gauge the runoff for each of the state’s critical river basins. The snowpack reading also is one of several measurements used to determine California’s water supply forecast. That forecast, which will influence how much water is shipped to the Southland this year, will be announced by the state Department of Water Resources on April 8. Here is a sample measurement from one monitoring station in the Sierra Nevada, where recent storms have increased snow by about six times the level recorded a month ago:

SNOWPACK: Statewide, the average snowpack has been calculated at 73% of normal, but will be updated with new information now being gathered.

MEASUREMENTS: Monthly measurements at the 6,800-foot mark on Echo Summit near Lake Tahoe found that the snowpack had increased from 12.3 inches in February to 76.7 inches. The water content of the snowpack increased from the equivalent of 3.4 inches to 20.4 inches. Normal would be about 29 inches. Although the increase is dramatic, state officials cautioned that readings at other stations might remain unusually low, causing the overall statewide snowpack picture to be less encouraging. “You can have very high readings at one station and very low readings at another, but you have to look at the average,” said Bill Helms, a expert on hydrology at the state Drought Center.

STORMS. Recent storms produced the sixth wettest March in California history.


Following are some conditions that have to be met before the drought can be declared over.

* If state and federal water officials are able to resume full deliveries to water districts.

* If federal reservoirs, now at 4.5 million acre-feet, reach 8 million or 9 million acre-feet.

* If the two major state reservoirs--San Luis and Oroville, now 30% to 35% full--reach 70% full.

* If 26 inches or more rain falls over the next few months into the four crucial rivers in the Sacramento River Basin: the Feather, the Yuba, the American and the Sacramento.

* If the Sacramento River Index, which measures projected runoff, reaches 13 million acre-feet; its current 8.9 million acre-feet is 47% of normal.

* If there is normal rainfall next year.

Source: Department of Water Resources’ Drought Center and hydrologists.