California’s dusty lake bottoms have room enough for rain

The recent storm in California wasn't enough of a drought-buster to shore up dry lakes in the state — Reuters picThe recent storm in California wasn't enough of a drought-buster to shore up dry lakes in the state — Reuters picLOS ANGELES, Dec 17 — An optimist would look at California’s dry reservoirs and say, cheerfully, that the lakes are half empty.

There is opportunity in the dusty lake bottoms—room to hold the rain that has been pounding down for weeks across the state after three years of damaging drought.

“There is so much room in the major reservoirs we can soak up the runoff now,” said Rob Hartman, an hydrologist in charge at the California Nevada River Forecast Center in Sacramento.

Normally at this time of year, when reservoirs usually have more water and the sun-bleached rocks are submerged, California needs most of its precipitation to fall in the form of snow, stacking up many feet deep in the mountains.

Snow is like money in the bank when it comes to water resources in California. It sits up high through the winter and melts in the spring, when it can be collected in the reservoirs for use during the state’s dry months.

A rain storm in the winter, under normal conditions, would be a waste. Not this year, Hartman said.

Reservoir levels

As of Dec. 15, 11 of the state’s 12 major reservoirs lagged behind their historic average depths for this time of year, according to the California Department of Water Resources.

Lake Shasta, the largest in the system, currently has 1.4 million acre feet water, where the average for this time of year would be nearly 2.8 million.

“One acre foot is what a family of four needs on average for one year,” said Doug Carlson, a spokesman for the department.

The extra room turned into something of a boon last week when a storm grounded planes, stopped trains and flooded streets across central California.

The precipitation that fell as rain instead of snow wasn’t wasted.

“It was a pretty good inflow into Lake Shasta,” Carlson said.

The storm wasn’t a drought-buster, though. It will take several more large systems throughout the winter to help the state overcome its three-year deficit.

Across California, there is an average of 3.4 inches (8.6 centimeters) of snow water equivalent on the ground, less than half of the normal 7.08 inches, Carlson said.

Fresh rain

California is getting another round of rain this week.

For the next couple of days, Pacific storms will spread rain from Eureka to San Diego, according to the National Weather Service. Parts of Northern California may be wet through the weekend.

The rain won’t be as severe as last week’s and almost certainly will lack the force to cause widespread flooding or mudslides, said Andrew Orrison, a meteorologist at the Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.

Even with the new rain, California has a long way to go. A report just released by NASA says it will take 11 trillion gallons, or 42 cubic kilometers, of water to bring an end to the drought. — Bloomberg