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Concerns Mount for California Water Shortage

March 11, 2013; 8:19 AM

The calendar water year, which runs Oct. 1 through Sept. 30, may have been off to a good start with above-average snowpack conditions in northern California. However, recent struggles and building drought in other parts of the state have made officials wary for upcoming water supply and raised concerns for an endangered fish, the Delta Smelt.

"Winter started out fairly decent. Sierra snow pack was at 200 percent of normal in December. Reservoirs were chock-full; there was flooding in some places," AccuWeather.com Expert Senior Meteorologist Ken Clark said.

Storms in late November and December resulted in above-average snowpack conditions in northern California. They also contributed to an above-average water supply in Shasta and Folsom reservoirs, according to the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR).

But not all of California was as lucky. The San Joaquin River watershed lagged behind.

"This mixed start to the water year was then followed by the driest combined Januarys and Februarys on record, leading to what has become a challenging water year," Pete Lucero, Public Affairs Officer for the Bureau of Reclamation said.

The supply is not a issue for the time being, but a dry remainder of the year could become problematic.

"Right now, the reservoirs are actually running a bit above historical averages. The problem is that they're going to go down," Clark said.

Farmers desperately rely on Shasta and Oroville reservoirs for irrigation. Currently, Shasta is at 106 percent of the historical average and Lake Oroville is at 112 percent.

"The effects are being felt now through lower allocations of available water and subsequently farmers will need to make decisions regarding crops that may affect the agricultural economy, farms, employment," Lucero said.

The situation may be worsened if there's below-normal precipitation going into the spring, as Clark expects.

"There's not going to be a tremendous increase in availability," he said.

In addition to the anticipated forecast, there exists a looming concern for California's endangered Delta Smelt.

After unanticipated numbers of the small fish were observed at pumping stations, state and federal pump supplies have been decreased.

The BOR believes that when storms in December 2012 flushed large amounts of sediment into the Delta, a situation may have been set up for elevated migration into the central and south Delta well into February.

To protect the smelt, the BOR began to cut back on pumping operations in late December and pumping reductions have been required throughout January and February.

"While we continue to hope for additional precipitation during the remainder of the rainy season," Lucero said, "we are also continuing to work with our federal, state and local partners to improve this year's supply and to find a comprehensive, long-term solution that will achieve the dual goals of a reliable water supply for California and a healthy Bay Delta ecosystem that supports the state's economy."

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