The California drought drove water levels to historic lows at Folsom Lake, but a wet winter is helping to refill the body of water. Video by Ed Fletcher. Additional photography by Bee staff. The Sacramento Bee
The California drought drove water levels to historic lows at Folsom Lake, but a wet winter is helping to refill the body of water. Video by Ed Fletcher. Additional photography by Bee staff. The Sacramento Bee

Water & Drought

California’s biggest reservoirs recover, putting water limits in question

By Ryan Sabalow, Mark Glover and Dale Kasler

rsabalow@sacbee.com

March 14, 2016 06:50 PM

With California’s two largest reservoirs hitting historically average levels following a weekend of heavy storms, the state’s chief water regulator is cautiously optimistic that the drought may finally be relaxing its grip.

If the wet weather continues, she said, the urban conservation mandates that turned lawns brown and have Californians taking shorter showers may be eased in the weeks ahead.

“In May, we’ll be either lifting it or changing it significantly,” Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, said Monday. “The more precipitation we get, the more snowpack we have, the better it is.”

Over the weekend, the state’s largest reservoir, Shasta Lake, surpassed its historic average for this time of year. The second largest, Lake Oroville, hit that mark Monday afternoon before dropping back just below average. It marks the first time since 2013 that the reservoirs have reached their historical averages for this time of year, said Doug Carlson, a spokesman for the Department of Water Resources.

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“That is some cause for optimism, because it has been a long, long slog trying to come back up from the real lows that Oroville, for example, has hit in the past couple of years,” Carlson said.

The two reservoirs represent a substantial portion of the state’s water supply. The 6.07 million acre-feet of water recorded Sunday in Shasta and Oroville account for more than 40 percent of the total water now stored in California’s largest reservoirs. Folsom Lake, a much smaller reservoir, has been at average levels since early February. That in itself was something of a milestone. Two months earlier, Folsom Lake stood at the lowest depth in its 60-year history.

Marcus said that when these reservoir levels are factored in with relatively normal Sierra snowpack, the state’s water picture has grown bright enough for officials to consider relaxing the conservation orders in place since June. On Monday, water content in the Sierra snowpack was 92 percent of average, according to Department of Water Resources data.

Gov. Jerry Brown ordered the state’s first-ever mandatory water cutbacks last spring, as the state’s water supplies suffered in a fourth year of drought. Last month, Marcus’ agency extended the conservation mandates through the end of October. They required cities and towns across the state to cut water use by a combined 25 percent, with heavier users targeted for the biggest reductions.

Marcus has said that regulators would revisit the mandates before summer to take into account the precipitation totals from winter and early spring. She said Monday that the weekend storms certainly point to tweaking the order if the trend continues.

“That could include differences between regions, obviously,” she said. “It could include lifting it entirely.”

In the meantime, she said it’s imperative for Californians to keep conserving, since their local water suppliers still may face sanctions if they don’t hit their targets. And, she noted, even with average water levels in Shasta, Oroville and Folsom, the state’s total reservoir supply is not yet at normal.

As of Monday, the combined supply at all the state’s largest reservoirs was around 78 percent of average, with Shasta, Folsom and Oroville included. Marcus said there’s no guarantee enough storms will emerge to bring the entire system up to normal. No rain is forecast for greater Sacramento until Sunday night.

“That’s what February taught us,” Marcus said. “It felt glorious in December and January and people were saying, ‘See? The drought’s over,’ then the tap got turned off. We had record heat, and it was frightening, so thank God for the ‘Miracle March.’ 

Sacramento-area residents – typically among the state’s heaviest water users – have faced some of the stiffest cutbacks under the mandates. Most water agencies in the region are under orders to cut usage 25 to 33 percent over 2013.

Area water officials have been saying for weeks that the state should ease those restrictions given that recent storms have filled Folsom Lake – a primary source of the region’s water – to the point that dam managers had to make releases to ward against floods.

Einar Maisch, general manager of the Placer County Water Agency, said it’s going to be hard to convince customers the region is still in a drought “when Shasta and Oroville get to average, with snowpack above them.”

“I’m very concerned (about trying) to tell our customers a story that they do not believe,” he said. As it stands, Placer County Water’s customers are supposed to cut usage 29 percent compared with 2013.

Marcus’ office already has given some concessions to local districts. The extended regulations approved in February relaxed the conservation mandates for many inland communities, where hot, dry summers make it harder to keep lawns and trees alive. Many of the water agencies in greater Sacramento saw their targets fall by 3 percentage points.

Despite the rains, it’s still uncertain how much of Northern California’s water may be shipped to the farms and cities south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta as the year progresses. The Department of Water Resources, which delivers water through the State Water Project, has tentatively promised to deliver 30 percent of what customers such as the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California have asked for. Last year, they received 20 percent.

That’s what February taught us. It felt glorious in December and January and people were saying, ‘See? The drought’s over,’ then the tap got turned off.

Felicia Marcus, chair of State Water Resources Control Board

Terry Erlewine, general manager of the State Water Contractors, an association of SWP customers, said a big problem in getting additional water is that the reservoirs that help supply the lower Central Valley, such as the San Luis Reservoir in Merced County, aren’t doing nearly as well as Oroville, Shasta and Folsom.

“That’s the part that’s missing this year,” Erlewine said.

There is one more immediate benefit to having so much water flowing through the system. It’s turning turbines that supply electricity for the Sacramento region’s power grid.

The Sacramento Municipal Utility District said Monday that it will drop its hydroelectric rate surcharge on customer bills effective next month, a byproduct of strong storms filling reservoirs in the utility’s hydroelectric generation system in the Sierra Nevada. The current 1.3 percent surcharge went into effect in April 2015. SMUD said the impact was about $1.20 a month for residential customers.

Brandi Merlo, a spokeswoman for San Francisco-based Pacific Gas and Electric Co., said her company isn’t ready to take the same step. PG&E customers are paying 1.4 percent more this year than they otherwise would be, but “it’s still too early to know what the effects of the rain would be.”

Considering re-using household water on your yard? In this installment of The Sacramento Bee's Water-Wise Homeowners series, Chris Lopez of GrowWater.org discusses greywater, "second-time around" water such as that used for laundry that can be re- Madeline Lear and Ed FletcherThe Sacramento Bee

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow