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Water is in storage, but conservation’s still key

By: Gus Thomson Journal Staff Writer
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California is moving into the third year of below-normal snowpack. State officials have been calling on Californians to conserve, conserve, and conserve some more. The result has been that the agency that supplies the Auburn area with most of its water faces a dilemma. The Placer County Water Agency is continuing to assure its customers that its water supply remains dependable. An area-of-origin water provider, it has built up stable, self-storage reservoir facilities in the Sierra. Despite a storm last week and another storm predicted to roll in on Sunday, the Sierra snowpack continues to fall below average levels, with water agency watersheds about 70 percent of normal at the start of the month and Nevada Irrigation District levels at 57 percent. Einar Maisch, water agency director of strategic affairs, reiterated Thursday the repeated comments by officials over the past few weeks that while customers need to use water efficiently, there continues to be confidence about the local supply. The greatest level of confidence is the result of the amount of water the agency is storing in snowpack above its French Meadows and Hell Hole reservoirs. “We’ll probably be selling surplus water out-of-county,” Maisch said. About 110,000 acre-feet of water supplied to the agency by Pacific Gas & Electric from snowpack above Spaulding Reservoir is a little less certain. With snowpack in that watershed at 57 percent of normal at the end of January, PG&E went to full-conservation mode two weeks ago, stopping its releases out of Spaulding Reservoir for power generation. But with about 15 feet of snowfall since the last measurements in some nearby areas of the Sierra and more snow expected this coming weekend, agency officials are hopeful. “We’re much more comfortable that we’re going to have a full supply,” Maisch said. The PG&E contract provides about 90 percent of the water the agency sells in an area that takes in Auburn and Lincoln. But even if that supply falters, the water agency has a recently completed $72 million pump station in the American River canyon below Auburn that could make up for a shortfall from the PG&E supply, Maisch said. It can tap into up to 20,000 acre-feet of its American River supply if dry weather continues. Noting that the Shasta and Folsom reservoirs have been drained to near-historic lows, Maisch said that communities receiving water from state and federal water projects are probably still in trouble. The snowpack situation could turn more positive over the weekend, said Ken Clark, senior meteorologist with Accuweather. The forecasting service is anticipating a storm arriving off the Pacific as early as Saturday night and as late as Sunday night. That means the possibility of more snow as low as 4,500 to 5,000 feet initially, with snow levels dropping after that. Clark said that with February normally one of the wettest months of the year, snow and rain totals are playing catch-up with the dry start of the winter season. On the bright side, Clark said ski resorts are reporting they don’t know if they could get any better conditions than they’ve been seeing in the past two weeks. In Auburn, season-to-date precipitation totals have been increasing with recent rains. The normal count as of Thursday is 23.92 inches. With .64 inches of rain recorded in the 24-hour period as of 5 p.m. Wednesday, this year’s total increased to 18.73 inches. But increases at this time of year can be deceiving. By the end of January 2008, the state was recording a snowpack that was 111 percent of average. But a prolonged dry stretch negated that advance, resulting in a second year of what state water officials considered a drought. Longterm, the executive manager for climate change with the state’s Department of Water Resources, said that climate change is adding another level of concern to water supply calculations. John Andrew, a member of the Governor’s Climate Action Team, said records kept by the state show climate change already having an impact on snowpack runoff on rivers. The shift is away from snowmelt in the spring to runoff from precipitation during winters. On the American River, the amount of spring runoff from snowmelt has dropped from a little less than 60 percent in the early 20th century to well below 50 percent, he said. “It’s quite scary to see what’s happening with the ecosystem because of climate change,” Andrew said. “It’s going to affect water supply but it’s also going to affect demand – we’re expecting increases from all sectors, urban, environmental and ag.” While the statistical analysis covers a comparatively short period of time and has many variables, the state is predicting a 25 percent reduction by mid-century in the snowpack. “And we’ve been accused of being conservative on our estimate,” Andrew said. At the same time, measures taken now to reduce or contain greenhouse gas emissions won’t have an immediate impact because of “legacy emissions from the industrial era,” he said. “The temperature will continue to rise for another couple of hundred years and sea levels will continue to rise,” Andrew said. The Journal’s Gus Thomson can be reached at Gust@goldcountrymedia.com. Here are some tips for conserving water during the winter: l Cover irrigation control valves to prevent cracks and leaks caused by winter weather l Install insulating wrap around pipes that can potentially freeze. Coldest temperatures of the year last into March l Inspect water appliances – in your home and garage – for signs of leaks. The list includes water heaters, toilets, sinks, showers, tubs and hoses on washing machines l Use clothes washers and dishwashers only for full loads Source: El Dorado Irrigation District