DWR Cuts State Water Project Allocation

Runoff from rain and snow is forecasted to be below average in the Sacramento and San Joaquin River systems.

Published on: Mar 6, 2012

The Department of Water Resources (DWR) has reduced its estimate of the amount of water the State Water Project will deliver this year. DWR dropped its projected delivery total, or allocation, from 60% to 50% of the requested amount of slightly more than 4 million acre-feet.

"Stubbornly dry conditions this winter give us no choice but to roll back our water supply estimate," says DWR Director Mark Cowin. "We continue to hope, however, that wetter conditions in the remaining winter weeks will allow us to boost deliveries back up."

DWR noted that precipitation so far this winter has been only about half of normal and the mountain snowpack is less than a third of normal.

The Sierra snowpack graphically shows how California has been shortchanged this winter. Water content in the statewide snowpack is only 30% of normal for the date, a mere 25% of the average April 1 measurement, when the snowpack is normally at its peak before the spring runoff.
The Sierra snowpack graphically shows how California has been shortchanged this winter. Water content in the statewide snowpack is only 30% of normal for the date, a mere 25% of the average April 1 measurement, when the snowpack is normally at its peak before the spring runoff.

Water Year (October 1-September 30) runoff from rain and snow is forecasted to be far below average in both the Sacramento River and San Joaquin River systems. The median runoff forecast of 9.4 million acre-feet for the Sacramento River system would be the 16th driest in 106 years. The February 1 median water year runoff forecast of 3.2 million acre-feet for the San Joaquin River system would be the 21st driest in 111 years. Average runoff is 18.3 million acre-feet for the Sacramento system, and 5.9 million acre-feet for the San Joaquin.

Much of California's water comes from the mountainous country from Shasta Lake in the north to the American River basin in the south. DWR's eight precipitation gages covering this area recorded an impressive 130% of average rainfall and snow in October, but only 43% in November, four percent of average in December, 84% of average in January, and 18% of a normal February total to date this month. Overall, this "Eight-Station Index" area to date is at 51% of its seasonal precipitation average. Records go back to 1920.

Similarly, precipitation gages in the San Joaquin basin recorded 125% of the average monthly precipitation for October, 32% for November, zero percent for December, 80% January, and 20% of a normal February to date. This "San Joaquin Five-Station Index" to date is at 47% of its seasonal average. San Joaquin Basin records go back to 1904.

Initial State Water Project allocations have seldom been reduced. Previous times were in 2001 (from 40% to a final allocation of 39% of requests); 1991(85% to 30%), and 1977 (100% to 90%). In 2000, the initial Allocation of 50% was increased to 100% but finally dropped to 90%.

All allocations, or supply estimates, are conservative, based on factors including reservoir storage, pessimistic weather projections, and projected runoff into streams, reservoirs and aquifers. Carryover reservoir storage from last winter remains high (110% of normal for the date), but a high pressure ridge this winter has diverted most storms to the north of California.

The Sierra snowpack graphically shows how California has been shortchanged this winter. Water content in the statewide snowpack is only 30% of normal for the date, a mere 25% of the average April 1 measurement, when the snowpack is normally at its peak before the spring runoff. Mountain snow normally provides approximately one-third of the water used in California as it melts in spring and early summer.

The large differences in snowfall totals in the 2010-2011 snow season and thus far this season, demonstrate the variability that is possible in California's precipitation and water storage. Models of California's future climate indicate that rain and snowfall is likely to become even less predictable. This variability makes it critically important that California continue to invest in water conservation and water recycling, as well as improve the flexibility and adaptability of our statewide water systems.

It is still possible – though statistically unlikely -- that late-season storms could salvage the water year, similar to the "Miracle March" of 1991, which recorded three times that month's average precipitation at the conclusion of an otherwise desperately dry winter in the fifth year of a drought.

The 50% State Water Project allocation announced today is not severely low. Last year, an unusually wet year, the final allocation was 80% of the slightly more than 4 million acre-feet requested by the 29 public agencies that distribute SWP water to more than 25 million Californians and nearly a million acres of irrigated farmland. The final allocation was 50% in 2010, 40% in 2009, 35% in 2008, and 60% in 2007. The last 100% allocation – difficult to achieve even in wet years because of fishery agency restrictions on Delta pumping to protect threatened and endangered fish – was in 2006.