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Monday, February 05, 2001 Copyright Las Vegas Review-Journal

California water supplies far below normal

Low Sierra snowpack runoff may spell trouble this summer


SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Despite Groundhog Day predictions of a long rainy season, state water forecasters said Friday that California water supplies likely will be tight this summer.

The monthly Sierra snowpack survey showed the snow's water content at only 50 percent of normal levels.

"Looking at the north Sierra precipitation index since 1922, the odds of us getting back to normal are about 1 in 10," said Bill Mork, California's state climatologist.

That's bad news for farmers and the state's energy supply.

Power demands rise more than 30 percent in summer, and California depends heavily on snowpack runoff to power hydroelectric plants.

About 60 percent of the water in state reservoirs comes from the snowpack runoff, said DWR spokesman Jeff Cohen.

The runoff also provides about 40 percent of the state's drinking and irrigation water.

Members of the State Water Project -- including Kern County farmers and most of Los Angeles -- were told this week that they would likely receive only 20 percent of water requests. It is the first substantial decrease in water allotments since 1994, when members got only about 50 percent of their requests.

Without any major storms this month, the forecast could get worse, said Pierre Stephens, the lead water supply forecaster for the DWR.

"If we have a dry February, the chances of getting a normal snowpack by March is small, like 1 in 100," he said.

The bleak water forecasts, high gasoline prices, low market prices and high power costs could persuade some farmers to scale back planting this year, said Dave Kranz at the California Farm Bureau Federation.

Farmers who have access to groundwater wells could use that water, but will have to pay high pumping costs.

The energy-sucking pumps will strain the state's electrical grid, said Terry Erlewine with State Water Contractors, a group of public agencies with State Water Project contracts.

Dan Jacobson with the California Pubic Interest Research Group says the water shortage compounds the state's power and environmental problems. To make up for the dry winter, polluting thermal units may have to work overtime.

Still, power officials and environmentalists hope the reservoirs will stay healthy, given the past six years of near-normal runoff and precipitation.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. spokesman John Tremayne said it was premature to forecast the entire rainy season.

"Last year about this time, we were in worse condition and we ended up above normal," he said. "It's not like the Pacific Northwest where they get rain every day. We get five to eight major storms each year that gives us the majority of our rain. Sometimes they're early, sometimes they're late."

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-- Martin Thompson (, February 05, 2001

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