Late winter storms that increased the snowpack to near 90 percent of normal have prompted the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) to increase the 2009 State Water Project (SWP) delivery allocation to 20 percent.

However, water storage in the state’s major reservoirs and runoff projections remains well below average. The precipitation was only enough to allow a 5 percent increase from the initial allocation of 15 percent in December 2008.

“California is in the midst of a crisis that threatens to cripple our economy and quality of life,” said DWR Director Lester Snow. “In this third dry year, Californians must step up water conservation efforts, and we must utilize water transfers to alleviate impacts. Yet another dry year also points to the need for long term investment in our state’s water management infrastructure.”

Besides drought conditions, a federal court ruling to protect Delta smelt has reduced SWP pumping capacity by about 30 percent. In the future, the Delta’s fragile ecosystem, uncertain precipitation patterns and reduced snowmelt will further reduce California’s water supply reliability.

In making the revised allocation, DWR cautioned that drought conditions still prevail in California, requiring vigilant conservation of water in our homes, businesses and farms. Final 2009 allocations to SWP contractors will be set in May.

“A number of productive storms, between Feb. 12 and March 5, boosted rainfall and snowpack totals, and levels rose in major Northern California reservoirs,” said DWR Senior Meteorologist Elissa Lynn. “However, one wet month cannot overcome back to back dry years in 2007 and 2008, so we are still in a drought.”

Although statewide rainfall totals are near average for this date, Lake Oroville remains 34 percent below normal. Runoff projections for the year are forecast at just 64 percent of normal, the third below average year in a row.

At the start of each year DWR issues a conservative initial allocation estimate that is typically increased as the water year progresses. In October 2008, DWR announced an initial 2009 allocation of 15 percent for the SWP, but severe drought conditions prevented this initial allocation from being increased until now. A SWP allocation this low and this late in the water year only occurred one other time in 1991, when it was also 20 percent. The SWP has been allocating water since 1968.

In late February, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaimed a state of emergency and ordered a range of actions to manage the drought crisis. The governor urged Californians to prepare for worsening drought and requested that all urban users reduce their water use by 20 percent.

DWR drought officials report that 18 agencies in California have implemented some form of mandatory water conservation measure and that voluntary conservation measures have been adopted by 57 agencies.

SWP contractors deliver water to more than 25 million California residents and more than 750,000 acres of farmland. SWP contractors requested 4.2 million acre-feet of water for the 2009 calendar year, the maximum contractual amount allowed. Reduced deliveries will require contractors to rely on dry water year contingency plans to meet their needs.