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Big Calif. Snowpack No Panacea For Water Users

Winter storms have bolstered the Sierra snowpack and started to replenish California's water supply, but officials said Friday that may not mean much for farms and cities.

The state Department of Water Resources reported the snowpack was holding about 115 percent of its usual water content for this time of year. That marked a big improvement over last year, when the snowpack was just 61 percent of normal during the same period.

The snowpack along the 400-mile mountain range is important because its runoff provides much of California's water supply.


Despite the wet winter, federal regulations intended to protect fish are limiting water deliveries from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Central Valley farms that grow half the nation's produce rely on the water that passes through the estuary.

"We anticipate it to be as bad, if not worse, as last year," said Sarah Woolf, a spokeswoman at Westlands Water District in the Central Valley, Farmers in the district fallowed more than a third of their 600,000 acres last year.

"We still have a broken delta, and we can't bring water through the system to deliver water," Woolf said.

Sierra snowmelt is channeled through the delta, where the northern state's major rivers drain before flowing to the Pacific Ocean. The water is diverted by massive state and federal pumps to large aqueducts that send drinking water to some 25 million people in cities across Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area, and irrigation water to farmers in the Central Valley.

Sue Sims, chief deputy director at the state Department of Water Resources, said the latest snow survey offers water users some cautious optimism, but a fourth year of drought is possible.


California's key reservoirs, which store the spring snowmelt before it's delivered, also are low after three dry years. Lake Oroville is about half as full as it should be for this time of year. Folsom Lake is at 61 percent, and Shasta is at 82 percent.

The low storage levels, drought conditions and environmental restrictions, have prompted the state to promise only 5 percent of the water that contractors requested this year. However, deliveries could increase if the snowpack stays above normal for the next two months. The federal government has not yet told farmers how much water to expect from them.

Farmers and water agencies say federal environmental regulations imposed last year to protect the tiny delta smelt and juvenile salmon will continue to jeopardize their water supplies even if the Sierra is blanketed with snow and the state's major rivers bulge with more rain.

For example, pumping restrictions already have been triggered at both the state and federal pumping plants to protect the winter run of Chinook salmon, which are currently migrating down the Sacramento River out to the ocean.

The Central Valley Project on Monday pumped roughly a third less water, while the State Water Project pumped only a third of the water it could have.

Additional pumping restrictions to protect the delta smelt also are expected later this year.

"Now is the time that we should be rebuilding those supplies, to be ready for the next dry year," Laura King Moon, assistant general manager of the State Water Contractors, said in a statement. "Instead, we can't pump at maximum capacity when the water is available."