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Water supply adequate despite dry winter, PCWA says

Lack of precipitation could mean early fire season,
By: Gloria Young,
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This year’s dry winter is not impacting the area’s water resources so far. But, it could mean an earlier fire season. The Department of Water Resources’ Sierra snow pack measurement in Northern California showed water content to be just 60 percent of average in early March.

At the Placer County Water Agency, Director of Resource Development Andrew Fecko said there’s sufficient reservoir supply to meet water demand through the summer.  PCWA has two sources — the Middle Fork project on the American River and PG&E’s Drum-Spaulding hydroelectric project on the South Fork of the Yuba River 

“(At the Middle Fork project), we have Hell Hole and French Meadows … reservoirs,” Fecko said. “They have roughly 175,000 acre feet of water. They are a little over 50 percent full right now — they hold about 340,000 acre feet.”

PCWA also purchases about 110,000 acre feet of water annually from PG&E.

Those reservoir storage levels are average for this time of year, PG&E spokeswoman Brandi Ehlers said.

“Statewide, the snow pack is at only 56 percent of normal,” she said. “PG&E measures both rain and snow. Our precipitation total in our watersheds is 85 percent of normal.”

She credits that to abundant rain and snow during November and December.

“We’re lucky that December had somewhat of a rainy (pattern),” she said. “But this January to April timeframe has been very dry for us. We’re managing our resources to make sure we maintain hydro generation.”

At PCWA, Fecko stressed that the two remaining snow surveys —in April and May — set the deliveries for the year.

“If a lot of snow melts off between now and then, it could make a difference,” he said. “But we are cautiously optimistic we won’t have any shortages. Given the current situation and storage, we will be able to meet normal demands, the way we’ve always been.”

This year’s water situation actually is about the same as a year ago, he said.

“Last year we were very dry. But the weather pattern was very different last year,” he said. “ … We always have an eye on the next year being dry as well. We carry enough water over the winter to make it through multiple dry years.”

Fecko doesn’t see an increase in demand from new users. There’s no waiting list and the user base in Placer County has been very stable the past few years.

“Our Middle Fork project currently serves about 40,000 acre feet out of it to homes and business,” he said. “Our water rights allow us to serve 120,000 acre feet, triple our current demand. We have a very good system. When the people of Placer County (approved the bond issue) in June 1961 to build the project, they had a lot of forethought and we are enjoying that today.”

But it is still important to use water efficiently and wisely.

“We don’t want to waste water,” Fecko said. “That’s not good use. Of course we have water conservations specialists on the staff willing to help with that for our customers.”

The lack of precipitation means the outlook is not as optimistic at Cal Fire.

“It has been a very dry year and it has us concerned as we now move into spring,” spokesman Daniel Berlant said this week. “These are the final months of getting enough precipitation to really impact fire season.”

In fact, Cal Fire has already battled two wildfires in Northern California this year — one in Lake County in January and another in Inyo County near Yosemite. And there has been an impact closer to home, too. 

“We’ve already seen some wildfires we’ve been able to contain to just a couple of acres in Placer and Nevada counties,” he said. “But this is not a usual winter for us.”

Typically Cal Fire begins increasing staff and opening auxiliary stations in early to mid-May. But that could begin earlier if April turns out to be another dry month, Berlant said.

Timing of the rainfall is important, too.

“If we get rain at the end of spring, just before summer, it doesn’t have the same impact as rain in the winter,” he said. “In winter it soaks into trees and brush and they retain that moisture longer. If you get the rainfall in late spring, the moisture doesn’t remain in brush and trees as long and they dry out much faster. That’s what we’ve been seeing the last couple of months. We get rain but it is followed by extended periods of dry weather.”

For homeowners, early spring is the time to get outside and create that all-important buffer zone.

“It doesn’t take long for those grasses and weeds to dry out and become flammable,” Berlant said. “(Homeowners) need to maintain that 100 feet of defensible space right now.”

In fact, the look of the grass in pastures and meadows right now can be deceiving — it appears to be green but often it’s already dry and can burn very quickly, said Lynne Tolmachoff, spokeswoman for Cal Fire’s Nevada-Yuba-Placer unit.

In Auburn, Fire Chief Mark D’Ambrogi said the indicators are there that it is going to be very dry.

“Fuel moisture levels are very low,” he said. “… The next two months are crucial to see what things are going to look like ahead.”

In past dry years, D’Ambrogi has seen fires break out as early as January.

“We used to have typical fire seasons when we identified months that we’d have wildland fires,” he said. “In California, it is yearlong now. We have heightened critical periods from mid-June or July through October. But Southern California can have fires anytime during the year.”

D’Ambrogi urges homeowners to keep that fire danger in mind.

“… Be cautious out there with fire and fuel equipment and things of that nature,” he said.

Reach Gloria Young at gloriay@goldcountrymedia.com.