What California's dry winter means

Friday, March 23, 2012

California relies heavily on winter snow accumulations to provide water for irrigation, hydropower, and domestic use.  As the mountain snowpack melts over the spring and summer, the water flows down to the inhabited foothills and lowlands, often stopping at one or more reservoirs along the way.  Managing water resources requires watching the water content of the snowpack, and this year's snowpack is below average.

According to the California Department of Water Resources, as of the end of February, snowpack water content is only 30 percent of historic readings for the date.  To explain this winter's unusually dry conditions, the Department points primarily to the weather.  Specifically, a persistent high pressure ridge along California's coast is credited with diverting most storms to the north.  Indeed, the state of Washington reports average and above-average snowpacks throughout most of the state.

25 million residents and 750,000 acres of irrigated farmland depend on the California snowpack for their water supply.  California's rivers are also home to 343 hydroelectric facilities, with a net installed capacity of 13,057 megawatts.  The State Water Project manages much of these flows, with a complex set of conduits, reservoirs, and storage basins.  However, the project cannot deliver as much water as consumers demand.  The project had previously projected that it could deliver about 60% of the requested water, but this projection has been slashed to 50% as a result of the dry winter.  Additionally, reservoirs are still holding water from last year, and are expected to be able to deliver water all summer, but continued dry winters will eventually eat into California's water storage.

What will California's dry winter mean for the future?

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