California drought possible following dry year, no rain in weather forecast

The Central Valley continues into what is quickly becoming one of the driest time periods in decades.
January 2, 2014 5:55:03 AM PST
Reservoir levels across California are down drastically, and growers fear that will impact their crops this year.

The last time California saw such dry conditions was the 1940s. In central California, the Kings River was dried up. And with no rainfall in the forecast, the outlook so far is another incredibly dry year ahead, impacting many in the state.

At at Millterton Lake in the Fresno area, a mound in the middle, normally only visible by a few feet, the lake bottom is visible because Millerton Lake is at 43 percent capacity.

"It comes from here, so if it's not coming down the mountain, you'll have to get it out of the ground," said Judi Silveira of Fresno.

Silveira and her husband drove to the lake on New Year's Day to check the levels first hand. They're worried as growers because they are facing another year with no water allocation and shrinking profits.

"Farming is a livelihood of a lot of people here, and it effects a lot of people downstream. And we need our water," Silveira said.

Park officials say lake levels have not been this low in years. The main boat ramp is bone dry, docks were just sitting on the dirt. It's a change from 2011 when so much rain and snow fell, the lake spilled over the dam. Millerton Lake will likely not reach those levels again anytime soon. Snow pack right now is only a fraction of what it usually is. The lack of water, though, is making for an intriguing outing for the Rios family and many others exploring what's usually submerged.

"That's the reason we wanted to come. My parents wanted to let the kids run up the mountains and see how it is without the water," said Rachel Rios of Dinuba, Calif.

Some predictions indicate the dry conditions will mean as little as five Percent, if any, water allocations for growers. A clearer picture of the drought will come when snow pack samples are taken Friday.

A swath of California closed out 2013 as the driest year on record, marked by above-normal temperatures and thirsty reservoirs.

While a drought has not been declared, some communities urged residents to conserve water.

Dozens of cities saw historically parched conditions this year, setting new marks in record-keeping that in some cases dates back more than a century.

Downtown Los Angeles received a meager 3.60 inches of rain since Jan. 1, the driest calendar year since 1877. Normally, downtown would be soaked with about 15 inches of precipitation.

Similarly, San Francisco recorded just 5.59 inches of rain since the beginning of the year, 18 inches below normal. Sacramento is 14 inches below average after receiving 6.13 inches of rain this year.

"It's been pitiful," said Bob Benjamin, a forecaster for the National Weather Service in Monterey, Calif. "It's a concern, but we do have several months to catch up."

December is typically one of the wettest months, but a stubborn dome of high pressure has steered storms away from California for the past month. While the country shivered during Christmas, Californians flocked to the beach and basked in summer-like temperatures.

Real-time readings of the water content in the snowpack - which supplies much of California's water - reveal it's only 20 percent of normal.

Shasta Lake, the state's largest reservoir, is currently at 37 percent of its total capacity. Folsom Lake recently dipped below 20 percent of its capacity, marking a historic low for the month. This triggered some communities in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta region to issue water conservation orders.

The Northern California city of Folsom recently mandated that residents cut water consumption by 20 percent. Sacramento County asked unincorporated areas to voluntarily reduce water use by the same amount.

State water managers are also discussing transferring water from places with relative abundance to communities facing critical shortages.

Even before the state was gripped by record dryness, several cities, including Santa Monica and Long Beach in Southern California, have planned to reduce their dependence on imported water in the coming years by maximizing groundwater supplies, harvesting stormwater and increasing recycled water distribution.

Despite an arid year, forecasters said the rainy season is not over yet. In past years, a dry December gave way to storms in January.

"Or we can get a miracle March that bails us out a little bit," said state climatologist Michael Anderson.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.