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Our View: Despite tragedy, Sierra snowpack is great provider

Our View
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With each passing winter storm, we’re reminded that Sierra snow can be a matter of life and death for those who rely on it. The tragic news last week of the death of 25-year-old Shawnte Marie Willis of Tahoma showed that rugged snow conditions can trump one’s mountain experience. A skilled snowboarder, Willis died after apparently striking a tree and falling into a tree well, not far off the groomed trails at Alpine Meadows. Rough winter weather kept rescue crews from finding her for several days. Ironically, those same conditions and deep snowpack offer the promise of an outstanding water year for California residents. As legislators head back to the Capitol to work with a new governor, they do so knowing the snowpack stands at nearly 200 percent of normal for this time of year. The state Department of Water Resources estimates it should be able to deliver more than 50 percent of the available water to more than 25 million Californians, and some 1 million acres of irrigated farmland — the highest amount since 2006. The remaining water is set aside for protected and endangered fish species. But before you start thinking about 20-minute showers and lush summer landscapes, remember that California’s history of drought is a long one. The heavy rains and snow of early 2006 gave way to three years of below-normal precipitation. And remember Folsom Lake? It was a big mud puddle in 2008, with low water exposing long-lost communities that once resided before the dam was built. The reservoir now holds a near-capacity 429,000 acre feet of water, or about 139 billion gallons, and recent water releases were necessary to allow for future Sierra runoff. That could all change if climatologists are correct about a drier-than-normal spring and coming summer. Closer to home, water management will be a priority in the foothills this year, as the Placer County Water Agency continues working with Placer County on relicensing of the Middle Fork American River Project. On the table is renewal of a 50-year license in 2013 to manage the Middle Fork’s system of reservoirs and dams from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. PCWA is investing heavily in its own staff and consultants to ensure the renewal process goes smoothly, and it’s an investment that could pay off well for agency water users and county residents. Some experts believe the hydro system could generate up to $100 million annually, while maintaining water control of the American and Yuba rivers is essential for foothill and Placer valley communities that rely on it. The only current hitch is a small conflict between PCWA and recreational interests regarding water flows downstream from the Oxbow Dam. The rafting industry wants water flows to continue fueling the growing tourist activity. Both sides appear optimistic they can strike a compromise during the relicensing process. The region’s state and federal delegation, including new state Sen. Ted Gaines and Congressman Tom McClintock, should be strong allies for the relicensing effort. The Auburn Chamber of Commerce has written a letter of interest and support for PCWA, and other chambers in Roseville, Rocklin and Lincoln should support the effort as well. Despite its dangers, the Sierra snowpack is the lifeblood of Placer County that must be respected, protected and preserved — for the environment, for business, and for the quality of life we’ve all come to enjoy.