[env-trinity] S.F. Chronicle 5/16/10
bwl3 at comcast.net
Tue May 18 13:08:36 PDT 2010
Drought label stays, and some blame politics
By Wyatt Buchanan
This winter, heavy snowfall buried the Sierra Nevada and torrential rains
drenched much of California, with storms so intense in January that
emergencies were declared in several counties, including Los Angeles and San
But while El Niño ended California's three years of dry winters, Gov. Arnold
Schwarzenegger does not intend to declare an end to the drought. Critics say
the reason is political: In November, California voters will be asked to
approve an $11 billion water bond measure that the governor has pushed for
The bonds would pay for new dams and other water storage projects, drought
relief, regional water management and restoration of the Sacramento-San
Joaquin River Delta, among other things.
Jonas Minton, a former deputy director of the state Department of Water
Resources, likened the governor's extension of the water crisis to the
fabricated drought of the 1974 Roman Polanski film "Chinatown," where Los
Angeles officials secretly dump fresh water into the ocean to create a water
shortage in order to pass a bond.
"California's snowpack at the start of this month stood at over 140 percent
of average," said Minton, who is now a water policy analyst for the
Conservation and Planning League and is campaigning against the bond
measure. "The average voter will be able to tell this is not a drought."
The ability to say the state is in a drought helps the bond campaign
immensely, said Jim Ross, a veteran San Francisco political consultant.
"Really what it does is simplifies the issue: We have rationing. We need to
make sure we have enough water. Here's how," Ross said.
Only the governor has the power to declare the beginning and end of droughts
in California. On June 4, 2008, after two years of below-average rainfall
and snowmelt, Schwarzenegger declared a statewide drought.
At that time, the state's final snow survey of the year indicated a water
shortage. California gets much of its water from snowmelt and the annual
spring measurement helps state officials determine how much water will be
available for consumption and irrigation. That year, the snowpack in the
Sierra was 67 percent of normal, and water storage in the state's major
reservoirs was far below normal: Lake Oroville was at 50 percent of
capacity, Shasta Lake at 61 percent and Folsom Lake at 63 percent.
This year, the final snow survey in the Sierra, taken April 30, showed the
snowpack at 143 percent of normal - double the previous year's level. As of
last week, Shasta Lake - California's largest reservoir- was 98 percent
full, Folsom Lake was 89 percent full and Lake Oroville was 65 percent full.
More snow has fallen since the final snow survey, more rain is forecast -
there's a chance of showers on Monday in parts of the state, including San
Francisco, Bakersfield and Sacramento - and the National Weather Service
predicts river flows to all three reservoirs will exceed historical averages
Yet, the governor and his water experts say that, among other reasons, the
below-average levels at Lake Oroville, the state's second-largest reservoir,
are too significant to declare an end to the drought.
So on June 4, California will officially enter its fourth year of drought.
Administration officials caution that California may be experiencing a wet
year amidst a string of dry years and thus it is premature to end the
official drought declaration. But in early 1993, Gov. Pete Wilson declared
the six-year drought of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the third-longest in
state history, after five months of above-average precipitation.
The state's reservoirs did not return to normal levels for another year
after Wilson's declaration, according to the water resources department.
Jeff Macedo, a spokesman for Schwarzenegger, said 2010 has "been a great
year for rain," but added, "We've only had one good season of rain over the
past four years. It isn't time to call an end to the drought."
State water officials echo the governor's stance, though they acknowledge
that the drought may indeed be over.
"Drought is an imprecise term and arguably most of the state is probably not
in a drought at the moment," said Wendy Martin, statewide drought
coordinator for the Department of Water Resources. "But you really can't
tell until sometime in the future when you can look back."
In 1995, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln established the National Drought
Mitigation Center to track drought conditions across the United States. The
center pulls together federal and academic scientists to monitor and
forecast droughts to help governments and institutions plan and prepare.
Based on its most recent data, updated Tuesday, the center estimates that 83
percent of California has no drought condition, although some of the state
is abnormally dry. Climatologists there estimate that 17 percent of the
state, concentrated in the extreme northeast corner, has drought conditions.
They base estimates on a number of indexes, including precipitation,
vegetation health, reservoir levels, snowpack, stream flow and soil
moisture. The long-term forecast shows that drought probably will continue
in the handful of affected counties - mainly Modoc, Lassen and Siskiyou -
but no drought is expected in the rest of the state, said Brian Fuchs, a
climatologist at the center.
"We put the information out, and for each state it's pretty much up to
themselves if they declare they are in a drought or not in a drought," he
What is a drought?
Martin, California's drought coordinator, said her department does not have
a precise definition of drought. But in 2000, the department published a
report on the state's drought of 1987-92 and defined a "drought threshold."
According to the report, that threshold is determined by two factors:
-- Runoff for a single year or multiple years in the lowest 10 percent of
the historical range.
-- Reservoir storage for the same time period at less than 70 percent of
If those two factors were considered today, there would be little to
The National Weather Service's California Nevada River Forecast Center
predicts that runoff for most rivers will be above 100 percent of average,
and rivers that feed the state's major reservoirs will all be well above
Reservoirs in the state are at 96 percent of average for this time of year,
according to the Department of Water Resources.
But Martin said the department criteria are 10 years old and there are other
factors to consider: the effects of climate change are becoming more acute
and water demand is increasing because the state's population grew by 10
million people in the past decade. U.S. Census Bureau figures, however, show
the state's population grew by about 3.1 million in the past decade.
Nonetheless, Martin said, California is a big and complex state and, "people
want to generalize things, but they don't lend to being generalized very
Water officials also are concerned that declaring an end to the drought
could lead to a drop-off in conservation efforts by Californians, and the
extra water could be needed if next year is dry.
Schwarzenegger's drought declaration includes orders for the state water
department to work with local agencies on measures such as fast-tracking
water-conservation grants and improving landscape and agriculture water
efficiency and leak monitoring. It also calls for "aggressive and immediate
action" to reduce water consumption.
But because of the high levels in the reservoirs, many water agencies in the
state are reassessing their need for mandatory conservation, according to
the Association of California Water Agencies.
The East Bay Municipal Utilities District ended its call for voluntary
rationing last month. Los Angeles still faces mandatory rationing, but an
official at the Metropolitan Water District - which supplies water to 26
agencies in Southern California, including Los Angeles, and gets water from
Northern California - said restrictions on pumping in the Sacramento-San
Joaquin River Delta is the main factor for shortages this year.
Those restrictions could be extended because of environmental concerns in
the delta, and water officials say that is likely to be the new normal.
UC Davis Professor Jay Lund, who is director of the Center for Watershed
Sciences there, said the state is "not unambiguously out of drought and
we're not unambiguously in a drought," adding that it will depend on whether
next year is wet again.
He agreed with water department officials that it can be problematic to talk
about drought in broad strokes.
"Drought is in the thirst of the beholder," he said.
When he declared the drought in 2008, Schwarzenegger - who had long before
promised to overhaul the state's water infrastructure - said, "We must work
together to ensure that California will have safe, reliable and clean water
not only today but 20, 30 and 40 years from now."
The bond proposal that will appear on November's ballot is titled the Safe
and Reliable Clean Water Drinking Act of 2010. It needs a simple majority to
On Wednesday, the campaign to promote the bond issued a news release on why
it is critical for voters to approve the measure. Cited, among other
reasons, was that California faces severely limited supplies of water that
have worsened after three years of drought.
Byron Leydecker, JcT
Chair, Friends of Trinity River
PO Box 2327
Mill Valley, CA 94942-2327
415 383 4810 land/fax (call first to fax)
415 519 4810 mobile
<mailto:bwl3 at comcast.net> bwl3 at comcast.net
<mailto:bleydecker at stanfordalumni.org> bleydecker at stanfordalumni.org
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