Sierra Snowpack

Water & Drought
By Ryan Sabalow, Phillip Reese and Dale Kasler
February 2, 2016 – 10:12 AM

  • State regulators, urging caution, extend conservation mandates through October
  • Latest tally shows Sierra snowpack above normal
  • Sacramento water officials sought more leniency on conservation

The snow keeps piling up, but the rules requiring water conservation aren’t going away.

California’s drought regulators agreed Tuesday to extend water conservation mandates through the end of October. The decision came in spite of increasing evidence that El Niño is delivering better-than-average precipitation, including an encouraging measurement of the Sierra Nevada snowpack recorded just hours earlier.

The new regulations adopted by the State Water Resources Control Board mean urban Californians will have to reduce their water usage between March and October by about 23.4 percent compared with the baseline year of 2013.

That represents a slight easing of the existing mandates expiring this month, which require a savings rate of 25 percent compared to 2013. Sacramentans will be among the main beneficiaries of the relaxed rules, as the state board voted to ease requirements for hot inland communities where it takes more water to keep trees and lawns alive.

The state board voted after hearing hours of dispute and concern from stakeholders on all sides of the issue. Environmentalists argued against relaxing the rules, saying Californians need to save as much water as possible given the lingering effects of the current drought and the forecasts for longer, more frequent dry spells ahead.

Scores of local water officials countered with pleas for additional leniency, especially in winter, saying it’s tough to maintain conservation efforts when rain and snow are falling. Other local officials wanted more credit for work they’ve done to improve their supplies.

A somewhat exasperated Felicia Marcus, the state board’s chairwoman, shot back at suggestions by some local officials that the conservation mandates should be abandoned altogether while it’s raining.

“If we add up everything everyone is asking for, we’d have to give water back,” Marcus said. The board has pledged to revisit the rules in the spring, when a full accounting of the winter rain and snow can be made.

Ninety miles east of Sacramento, employees from the state Department of Water Resources unearthed fresh evidence that this season promises at least some relief from the state’s historic drought, now in its fifth year.

As a steady but moderate snow fell, DWR employees conducted the season’s second manual measurement of the Sierra Nevada snowpack at Phillips, near Echo Summit off Highway 50. The findings: 76 inches of snow, or 25.4 inches of water content. That’s 130 percent of average for the Phillips location for early February.

By comparison, the snow’s water content was only 12 percent of average at Phillips a year ago and 25 percent statewide.

“It’s a good start,” Frank Gehrke, chief of snow surveys for the DWR, told about 30 media representatives after taking the measurement. “We need to keep on this track.”

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