Pray for Rain signs may start popping up once again around Turlock as the area continues to experience extreme drought conditions.
California is experiencing one of the driest starts to spring in decades, data showed Friday, and absent a heavy dose of April and May showers the state's drought will deepen and that could lead to stricter rules on water use and another devastating wildfire season.
New readings showed the water in California's mountain snowpack sat at 38% of average. That's the lowest mark since the end of the last drought in 2015; only twice since 1988 has the level been lower.
State officials highlighted the severity of the dismal water numbers as they stood at a snow measuring station south of Lake Tahoe, where the landscape included more grass than snow. At the deepest point measured there, there was just 2.5 inches (6.35 centimeters) of snow.
"You need no more evidence than standing here on this very dry landscape to understand some of the challenges we're facing here in California," said Karla Nemeth, director of the California Department of Water Resources. "All Californians need to do their part."
Nearly all of California and much of the U.S. West is in severe to extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Last July, California Gov. Gavin Newsom asked people to cut their water use by 15% compared to 2020 levels, but so far consumption is down just 6%. State reservoirs are filled far below normal levels.
About a third of California's water supply comes from melted snow that trickles into rivers and reservoirs. April 1 is when the snowpack typically is at its peak and the date is used as a benchmark to predict the state's water supply in the drier, hotter spring and summer months. The next few weeks will be critical to understanding how much of the melting snow is ending up in state reservoirs instead of evaporating or seeping into parched ground.
The nearly 11 inches (28 centimeters) worth of water sitting in snow in the Sierra Nevada along California's eastern edge is the lowest reading since the depth of the last drought seven years ago, when California ended winter with just 5% of the normal water levels in the mountains, according to the department.
The numbers mark a disappointing end to California's winter, which began with heavy December storms that put the snowpack at 160% of the average. But there has been little precipitation since Jan. 1.
Turlock’s water year is looking just as bleak as the rest of the state’s.
“Last year around this time is when we started to see the losses in the snowpack and we pretty much ran out of our snowpack around the middle of May. Now we’re sitting at a lower value and we’re already seeing those losses. If we’re tracking at a similar rate of losses as we did last year, we could see snowpack running out at the beginning of May or the end of April,” said TID hydrologist Olivia Cramer during the March 22 Board meeting. “It’s really significant as we’re looking at Don Pedro to when we can see peak inflows coming in. In a really good water year, you’re looking at June/July you get your peak runoff. This year we’re looking at end of April, beginning of May.”
Due to the lack of precipitation and windy conditions, the Turlock Irrigation District started its irrigation season early. A planned April 7 start was moved to March 28. The TID Board of Directors voted to move up the start date, but lower the anticipated 28-inch irrigation allotment to 27 inches and keep the season end date (for the time being) at Oct. 12.
Even with the lower allotment, TID irrigation customers are better off than many other areas around the region.
Federal officials announced Friday that municipal and industrial users that rely on water from the Central Valley Project will get less than planned. About 70 of the project's 270 contractors receive water for household and business use in the agricultural region that includes the greater Sacramento and San Francisco Bay Area. They had been told to expect 25% of their requested supply earlier this year, but the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation now says they will only get what's needed for critical activities such as drinking and bathing. A lot of urban water use goes to outdoor landscaping.
Farmers who rely on water from the federal project were told earlier this year not to expect any water.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.