(California Department of Water Resources)

The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) will conduct this winter’s first snow survey Jan. 3 as water officials brace for a possible third consecutive dry year in the state.

DWR says the survey results likely will be far different than last winter’s initial readings which showed water content in the snowpack at 150 percent of normal for the date, just as California was turning dry after wet storms in November and December.

The current scant snowpack dramatically illustrates the result of the near-record dry weather since last January.

Statewide electronic readings indicate that today’s snowpack water content is only 20 percent of normal for the date.

Get the  latest agricultural news each day to your Inbox. Click here for the free Western Farm Press Daily e-mail newsletter.

The snowpack normally provides about a third of the water used in California as it slowly melts into streams and reservoirs in spring and early summer.

Manual readings taken by DWR and other cooperating agencies this Friday and on or about the first of each month through May will augment and check the accuracy of real-time electronic readings.

A traditional center of attention each manual snow survey date is the measurement site off Highway 50 near Echo Summit. The 11 a.m. January 3 readings there should be publicly available by early afternoon.

Although anticipating dismal water content readings this week, DWR weather watchers say it is early in the season and this winter could still turn out average or wet. 

The concern, however, is that irrigation-dependent San Joaquin Valley farms and some other areas will suffer if we go into a third consecutive dry year without the cushion of reservoir storage that we had this calendar year (2013) due to the storms in late 2012 before California began sliding toward drought. 

A third dry year would also bring continued higher wildfire risks.

Today, Lake Oroville in Butte County, the State Water Project’s (SWP) principal reservoir, is at 41 percent of its 3.5 million acre-foot capacity (66 percent of its historical average for the date). 

Shasta Lake located north of Redding (Calif.) and the federal Central Valley Project’s (CVP) largest reservoir, is at 37 percent of its 4.5 million acre-foot capacity (58 percent of average for the date).

The San Luis Reservoir, a critical south-of-Delta reservoir for both the SWP and CVP, is a mere 29 percent of its 2 million acre-foot capacity (43 percent of average for the date) due to dry weather and Delta pumping restrictions last winter to protect salmon and Delta smelt.

Delta water is pumped into the off stream reservoir in winter and early spring for summer use in the Bay Area, San Joaquin Valley, Central Coast, and Southern California.

The continuing dry weather prompted DWR Director Mark Cowin on Dec. 13 to mobilize a drought management team “to offset potentially devastating impacts to citizen health, well-being and our economy.”

Electronic snowpack readings are available on the Internet.

Electronic reservoir readings are also available.

For a broader snapshot of current and historical weather conditions, see DWR’s water conditions page and the drought page.

More good reads from Western Farm Press:

Tom Seaver — pitcher’s mound to wine ground

Lundberg Family Farms lauded for ag innovation

We Believe in Growing scholarship applications available