Water rationing is possible this summer

Times Staff Writer

California communities face a strong possibility of water shortages and even mandatory rationing this summer because of record dry weather in March and April, a fast-shrinking snowpack and below-normal reservoir levels, state officials said Thursday.

The bleak news, contained in California’s final Sierra snowpack report of the snow season, means a second consecutive year of water anxieties in a state heavily dependent on water from the melting snow in the Sierra Nevada.

“I have not seen a more serious water situation in my career, and I’ve been doing this 30 years,” said Timothy Quinn, executive director of the Assn. of California Water Agencies. An outmoded delivery system and court rulings that protect endangered fish are also straining the system, he said.


“This is a harbinger of relatively tough times, not just for this year but for a set of years,” Quinn said.

He and others urged Californians to rein in water use.

“We need to recognize that we’re in a water shortage and begin to act accordingly,” state Resources Secretary Mike Chrisman told reporters at a Sacramento news conference.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued a statement urging the Legislature to pass comprehensive water reforms, warning that many communities face shortages and possible rationing.

After a record-dry 2006-07 snow year, water managers had hoped this year would bring ample snow and rainfall to fill reservoirs and ease worries about water shortages. Those concerns have been exacerbated by a long drought in the Colorado River Basin and a federal court ruling curbing water deliveries from Northern California.

Cities throughout Southern California supplement their own local supplies with two major sources outside the region: Sierra water pumped south through the State Water Project, and water transported west from the Colorado River.

Los Angeles traditionally has gotten 30% to 60% of its water from the Eastern Sierra via the Los Angeles Aqueduct, but it still buys water imported from the north and east.


“I think we’re all facing a worrisome water picture,” said H. David Nahai, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

Statewide, early hopes of a wet year faltered when snowfall in some areas of the Sierra -- the source of much of the state’s water -- virtually stopped in early March. The months of March and April combined were the driest in the northern Sierra since 1921.

The Sierra Nevada snowpack has shrunk to 67% of normal, down sharply from 97% in late March, according to results of the snow survey, released Thursday by the state Department of Water Resources. The May 1 measurements are crucial in forecasting California water supplies as well as hydroelectric production, state officials said.

“That suggests that reservoir levels are not going to recover,” state snow survey chief Frank Gehrke said. Lake Oroville, which stores much of the water delivered to Southern California, contains only 58% of the water normally there at this time of year.

Worsening the situation, dry weather last year has left soil inordinately parched, and runoff into streams and reservoirs is only 55% to 65% of normal, state experts said. Spring sunshine and warm weather meant the snowpack melted more quickly and some snow converted directly to vapor, Gehrke said.

State meteorologist Elissa Lin fell short of officially declaring a drought. “It’s been a very tough two years for water supply in California,” Lin said. “All of these things are pointing in that direction. . . . Certainly, if we go into a third year, we’re looking at some critical situations.”


Further tightening water supplies, state deliveries to Southern California were slashed in December after a federal court decision last summer aimed at protecting endangered smelt in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger, who ordered those restrictions, is scheduled to hold hearings in June to decide whether to impose further cutbacks to protect chinook salmon and Central Valley steelhead trout.