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Less Snow, but No Fear of Summer Drought

March 28, 2003|From Associated Press

SACRAMENTO — State water-watchers put their third straight below-average winter in the books Thursday, but said they are not worried about drought this summer.

The officials conducted their final snow survey in the Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges, the one they use to officially determine the winter's total accumulation.

Water stored in the snow pack is about 76% of normal this winter statewide, down from 87% last year, but up from a dismal 58% in 2001.

"After a great December, we just went into a tailspin," said Jeff Cohen of the state Department of Water Resources.

Hundreds of hands-on snow measurements across the Sierra range are combined with readings from remote sensors to help gauge water supplies for the critical dry summer months.

More than a third of the state's drinking and irrigation water comes from Sierra snow, while snow-fed hydroelectric plants produce about a quarter of California's power.

The winter rain and snow was above normal in the northwest Trinity-Smith River area, but about 72% of average in the Central Sierra from Lake Tahoe south to the San Joaquin River headwaters.

Southern California's snowfall was about 67% of a typical year.

But there are exceptions.

The Owens Valley watershed that funnels into the Los Angeles Aqueduct was about 80% of average, for instance.

And to the north, the normally wet Feather River Basin, which feeds the State Water Project, was expected to produce little more than half its traditional spring runoff.

"We haven't received any indication that anybody would be in dire straits this summer," Cohen said.

Though some individuals or communities could see shortages, water agencies expect "nothing on a grand scale and nothing that can't be handled," Cohen said.

The amount of water that actually will be delivered to farmers and communities depends not only on the snow accumulation, but also on water stored in reservoirs and how much water managers think they need to hold in the event the string of dry winters continues.

Southern California benefited from a parade of heavy spring storms, which helped raise groundwater levels and could trim the amount of water the region must import.

Gusting Santa Ana winds, warmer temperatures and lack of rain were already beginning to dry out the hillsides that were green from storms a few weeks ago, however.

"If we don't see any more rain, we could see hills start to change color in another month or so," bringing higher fire danger in a couple more months, Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Kurt Schaeffer said.

The brush was already dry enough Thursday to sustain a fire that scorched about three acres of hillside.

"Already we're having our fires," said Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Edward Osorio. "It's year-round for us. The little rain we have quickly dries up, and we're back in exactly the same situation."

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