California snow levels improve but remain below normal

Late winter storms have improved the Sierra Nevada snowpack and helped boost levels of the state's two largest reservoirs. Above, Frank Gehrke, chief of snow surveys for the Department of Water Resources, crosses a snow-covered meadow Tuesday as he returns from conducting the snowpack survey at Echo Summit.
(Rich Pedroncelli)

Late winter storms have improved the Sierra Nevada snowpack, but it is still only about a third of the norm for the date, officials report.

The snowpack is up from 24% a month ago and the abysmal 12% measured in late January. At 61% of average, precipitation in the Northern Sierra, a key source of water, has also climbed out of the basement.

That has helped boost levels of the state’s two largest reservoirs, Shasta Reservoir and Lake Oroville in Northern California. But both remain slightly less than half-full and state officials expect that this year will be among the 10 driest on record.

With the storms has also come increasing political pressure to ramp up pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the center of the state’s water distribution system.


Officials announced Tuesday that they are temporarily waiving an endangered species protection to enable water managers to send more Northern California water south.

Mark Cowin, director of the state Department of Water Resources, said the rule suspension would remain in effect for the next week or two and would increase delta exports by as much as 10,000 acre-feet a day. An acre-foot is equivalent to a year’s water supply for two households.

This marks the second time in less than a month that fishery agencies, responding to the drought, have relaxed a seasonal environmental restriction on delta pumping.

Environmentalists condemned the action.

“The increased pumping authorized today sacrifices California salmon runs and is terrible news for the thousands of men and women whose livelihoods depend on a healthy delta,” said Doug Obegi, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The changes are unlikely to help most of the state because the additional exports will either be kept in storage south of the delta as a hedge against another dry year, or they will go to irrigation districts with senior water rights.

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