Minimal Sierra Nevada Snowpack Will Not Ease California's Drought

Minimal Sierra Nevada Snowpack Will Not Ease California's Drought

5:24pm Apr 04, 2015

The latest figures on the California drought are expected to be released on Wednesday. The state's snowpack, a major source of water for the rest of the year, is at the lowest level on record.

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California will pay the price for what did not happen this past winter. Much of the state depends on water from the mountains. The water flows from melting snow, which this year hardly accumulated at all in some places. This came in a state that was already suffering a drought. In this part of the program, we'll hear what this means in the mountains and downstream. We start with NPR's Kirk Siegler in the Sierra Nevada high country.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Things are really bad up here. Around Lake Tahoe, it looks like it could be July. It's barren, bone dry. The only snow that is left is way up high on the peaks. Well, the new numbers expected later today will likely show that the snowpack across the entire Sierra Nevada is just 6 percent of average, 6 percent. And that shatters the previous low record on this date of 25 percent set in 1977 and again last year.

FRANK GEHRKE: There is no snow here, period. The ground's, you know - dust isn't blowing around, but it's not that far off.

SIEGLER: California's chief snow surveyor, Frank Gehrke, kicks the dirt with his hiking boot at a snowpack measuring station in the Eldorado National Forest near Lake Tahoe. It's one of about 250 sites across the High Sierra. We're at 6,500 feet in a meadow surrounded by towering pine trees next to the American River. If this were a normal year, Gehrke says there would still be 6 feet of snow here. He was planning to record one last measurement of this dismal season, but no need.

GEHRKE: I didn't expect to see this. I was surveying in 1983 for what was, in many areas, a maximum snowpack on record. I didn't think I'd see the lowest snowpack on record.

SIEGLER: This has huge implications. The snowpack in these mountains is supposed to be a storage bank. It holds the snow late into the spring that then melts gradually. The runoff feeds reservoirs that supply water for millions of people and the nation's most productive farming region. This year, Gehrke says, there may not even be a runoff.

GEHRKE: We are struggling to try and provide guidance to the reservoir operators 'cause we're so far down from where we should be.

SIEGLER: So basically, that guidance is what you have in the reservoirs now is what you're going to get.

RON MILLIGAN: I just have to have you sign in.


California's complex web of canals, pipelines and reservoirs is on full display inside the control room at the Bureau of Reclamation headquarters down in Sacramento. As the operations manager of the federal Central Valley Project, Ron Milligan is paying close attention to today's snowpack forecast. He has to decide where and when to release what water is left in the reservoirs.

MILLIGAN: Well, it's the lowest I've seen for an April 1 number. So what it tells me is that we're into some uncharted territory.

SIEGLER: Some reservoirs are still doing OK thanks to a wet December - others, not so much. The largest one lies below Mount Shasta and is just 50 percent of capacity. And Milligan says that's only because it's still holding water from the last time California had a big snow year, 2011.

MILLIGAN: I think do everything you can now to conserve water.

SIEGLER: Milligan's agency has warned that most farmers downstream won't get any water from this federal project for a second straight year. As my colleague Nathan Rott found out, that means another year of emergency measures.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Last year was what you would call a tough year at La Jolla Farms in Delano, Calif. Or as farmer Jerry Schlitz puts it...

JERRY SCHLITZ: Last year was damn near disaster.

ROTT: La Jolla is a vineyard, a thousand or so acres of neat lines of grapevines in the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley. It depends on water from two sources, the federal Central Valley Project and wells. Until last year, Schlitz says, wells were just used to supplement the federal water.

SCHLITZ: Now we have nothing but wells, nothing. You know, there's no water other than coming out of the ground.

ROTT: And last year, one of those wells at La Jolla dried up. They lost 160 acres, about $1 million worth of produce, more in wasted labor and resources, which is why this year La Jolla is plowing miles of trench in the dry earth to bury water pipes connecting wells to fields and fields to wells, making sure that they can move water from working wells to the places that need it.

JUVENAL MONTEMAYOR: We're getting prepared in case we lost one or we lost two... And if we lost three? Watch out, man. I'm going to unemployment (laughter).

ROTT: That's Juvenal Montemayor, the owner and founder of La Jolla. He says this is the best they can do. Drilling a new well isn't a short-term option.

MONTEMAYOR: You try to get a well done right now - no way. It's like two years waiting time for wells.

ROTT: Then, there's cost.

MONTEMAYOR: Half a million dollars right now to make a well. Now ask me if I want to make a well.

ROTT: No (laughter).

MONTEMAYOR: I don't want to make a well. But I don't have a choice. I don't have a choice.

ROTT: That's a tough situation La Jolla and many other farms in the Central Valley face. They won't be getting any federal water. Groundwater reserves are getting lower and lower as farmers in towns drill deeper and deeper, sucking out more water than there is coming in. It's gotten so bad in the San Joaquin Valley that the ground is actually sinking. Last summer, it sank half an inch each month. Back among the grapevines at La Jolla, Schlitz points to the Sierra Nevada mountains on the horizon, their tops barely sprinkled with snow.

SCHLITZ: That's our lifeblood up there. Whatever comes out of there, that's - that's our lifeblood.

ROTT: Schlitz says it's a scary time. As you heard from my colleague, Kirk Siegler, this year's snowpack is only 6 percent of normal. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Delano, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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