California appears to be facing a fourth consecutive dry year, with water reservoirs already at critically low levels, the results of the state's second snowpack survey suggest.
Snowpack levels in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where spring water runoff produces a vital source of water for more than 25 million Californians, are "dismally meager," according to the Department of Water Resources. The agency conducted its second manual snowpack survey of the season Thursday, confirming the below-normal levels reported by electronic sensors.
At Echo Summit, about 90 miles east of Sacramento, snowpack was at 12 percent of normal for this time of year. Statewide, levels are 25 percent of historical average, according to the water agency.
The numbers are even lower than the previous manual survey conducted in late December. January is typically one of California's wettest months of the year, but precipitation has been well below normal after a few storms brought rain and snow to the state in December.
"Unfortunately, today’s manual snow survey makes it likely that California’s drought will run through a fourth consecutive year," DWR officials said in a statement.
Heavy precipitation and cooler temperatures would be required over the next three months to provide any reason for optimism around California's water supply, according to the agency.
The snowpack measurement is an important factor in the drought forecast because spring runoff from the Sierras flows into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which then feeds California's major water reservoirs. Without adequate spring runoff, those reservoirs will remain at critically low levels into the dry, hot summer months.
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For example, the State Water Project's principal reservoir, Lake Oroville in Butte County, contains just 41 percent of its capacity.
State climatologists estimate the state would need at least 150 percent of normal precipitation by the end of the water year, which is Sept. 30, if California has any chance of significant drought improvement.
Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency in January 2014 and asked Californians to reduce water use by 20 percent. State records show its a figure residents have had difficulty meeting.