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Happy New Year (Runoff Year 2013-14) (Originally posted April 1, 2013)

April 1, 2013

Yes, yes, I know, it’s April 1 and the news is mostly about the problem of exploding maple trees (not enough people tapping the trees for syrup these days) and such things, but . . . this is serious:   happy new year to you and yours.

Yes, it’s new year’s day. You see in the water business, April 1 marks the start of a new runoff year.  This is the date when on average the great mountain snowpacks of the western United States, those of the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains among them, reach their seasonal peaks, and when all that water stored in the snowpack starts to melt and fill the streams . . . . which fill the reservoirs which fill the aqueducts which fill the distribution pipelines which feed water to your tap.  This is the date when the runoff forecasters collect their final snowpack measurements with which to make their projections of water supply availability for the coming runoff year.  Happy new year.

So how does the runoff forecast look for the new year?  No, no, not so fast. First, a bit of past is prologue, in two easy parts: 

1)  Remember the mandatory water use restrictions of a few years ago?  We had drought and court-ordered pumping restrictions on the State Water Project, and persistent drought on the Colorado River, and not water available to serve normal demands. But the winter of 2010-11 brought abundant precipitation, California’s reservoirs all filled, water use restrictions were lifted, and people danced in the streets in celebration. [Editor’s note: it is April 1 and some embellishment by the reporter is to be tolerated].  

2)  Then came the disappointingly dry winter of 2011-2012, but did you notice?  NO, you didn’t notice because the reservoirs were all full from the previous winter, urban water demands across the state were low due to conservation persistence and the depressed economy, and our robust water supply system served customer demands without any extraordinary limitations. The partying in the streets continued . . .

Which brings us to the just completed winter of 2012-13.  Oh what promise of youth gone astray!  By the end of December the Sierra Nevada snowpack was 150% to 200% of normal for the date, the water system operators were happy, the fish were happy, the farmers and ranchers were friends . . . you get the idea. But then Tialoc  directed his benevolences elsewhere, and for most of the Sierra January through March was among the driest such period on record.  It isn’t pretty.  Here are the numbers:  


  • Storage reserves in the state are still strong and available to supplement the low runoff, so we will probably make it through the year OK.  But the water managers will be nervous, because one more year of dry conditions and next year we’ll be back to 2009’s and 2010’s mandatory water use restrictions.
  • Water agencies will continue to be able to provide affirmative Water Supply Assessments, with defensible findings grounded on their still fresh 2011 (nominal 2010) Urban Water Management Plans, and where necessary on Metropolitan’s planning buffer (if you are in the Met service area) and the Water Authority’s  Accelerated Forecast Reserve (for those of you in the San Diego area).  BUT . . . this won’t last if the coming year is again dry.
  • Lake Powell levels will fall, which is bad for those of you that want to go houseboating, and good for those of you that want to explore the lower Escalante Canyons on foot.  Lake Mead levels will fall and the managers of the Southern Nevada Water Authority will get nervous and send out news releases lamenting the injustice of their plight.

In summary, it will be another year of excellent adventure in the water business.  If you need expert help planning, documenting, or managing your water supplies, please give me a call.

-- Doug


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