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Water Agency: 'Relax' Conservation Mandate For Northern California

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

The last Sierra Nevada snowpack measurement of the 2015-16 season was 95 percent of normal at this Echo Summit location. The statewide average was 87 percent of normal on March 30, 2016.

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Some water providers in northern California say that with near-normal northern Sierra snowpack, state water managers should "relax" conservation mandates for the region.

The comments come a day after the season’s last Sierra Nevada snowpack measurement and as the latest U.S. Drought Monitor report shows drought has eased slightly in northwest California.

Extreme drought still covers 55 percent of the state and exceptional drought nearly 35 percent of California.

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"Water-storage and streamflow indicators continue to show that drought has been sharply scaled back or eliminated," [in northwest California] according to the weekly update released March 31. "For the remainder of the state, the return of dry weather meant that the drought depiction was effectively unchanged from last week."

The Drought Monitor drought intensity levels are Abnormally Dry, Moderate, Severe, Extreme and Exceptional.

In California, there were slight reductions in all the intensity levels except the exceptional category, at 34.7 percent, and 3.55 percent of the state has no level of drought. 

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In Nevada, 94 percent of the state is abnormally dry, but just 23 percent is in extreme drought. A year ago, nearly half (48 percent) of Nevada was in extreme drought.033116 DROMON-Snowpack

The California Department of Water Resources says the average water content of the high-elevation Sierra Nevada snowpack currently stands at 24.4 inches statewide, about 87 percent of average.

"However, the snowpack is 97 percent of average in the northern Sierra Nevada, but just 72 percent of average in the southern Sierra Nevada, reflective of the "northern" storm track that has been a hallmark of the 2015-16 winter wet season," the report notes.

El Niño brought heavy precipitation to Northern California, but failed to bring the same benefit to Central and Southern California.

California water managers say after the snowpack measurement at Echo Summit that they may consider this north-south precipitation split when determining future water conservation mandates.

Relax or rescind emergency conservation

At least one water agency says the state should take those differences into account.

Amy Talbot is the Water Efficiency Program Manager for the Sacramento Regional Water Authority, which represents water providers in Sacramento, Placer, El Dorado, Yolo and Sutter counties that serve about two million users. 

Talbot says state-mandated water conservation targets for the Sacramento region range from 20 to 36 percent. She says the conservation rate in the region averaged 31 percent from June 2015, when the mandates went into effect, through February 2016.

"Snow survey results demonstrate the extent to which water supply conditions have improved compared to the previous two years of extreme drought, especially in the northern part of the state," Talbot says. "The Central Sierra snowpack is 88 percent of normal for this date compared to just 4 percent last year and 37 percent in 2014."

033116 DROMON-Reservoirs

Talbot says improvements are "striking" in the Sacramento region, "compared to early 2014 when this area began to experience extremely dry conditions. The Folsom reservoir dropped to historic lows but now it is above average for this time of year."

"Given the improved conditions, we look forward to working with the State Water Board to develop a plan to relax or rescind emergency conservation in areas of the state experiencing average or better hydrologic conditions and transition back into promoting water efficiency as a long-term lifestyle benefit," Talbot says.

The "long-term lifestyle benefit" Talbot referenced may be an ethic California will need to maintain in the face of drought cycles and climate change. Research submitted to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows that snow will come sooner and melt faster in the Sierra Nevada, and Southern California’s climate will become warmer and drier.

Looking ahead for the next several months, the U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook released March 17 shows drought improvement in Northern California, but drought likely persisting in much of Central and Southern California and Western Nevada.

033116 DROMON-Outlook