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Snow Survey: Water Supply Low, but Buffered by a Snowy 2011

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The Sierras from Mammoth by  Clinton Steeds | Image via Creative Commons
The Sierras from Mammoth by Clinton Steeds | Image via Creative Commons

May officially kicks-off "Water Awareness Month" in California so there's no better time to investigate the status of our drinking water.

In its final snow survey of the year, the Department of Water Resources (DWR) trekked up into the mountains near Sacramento on Tuesday to check on our "frozen reservoirs," which provide approximately a third of California's water supply to confirm what's been a theme this dry winter season: low water content.

Manual and electronic snowpack readings revealed lower than normal levels. Statewide, snowpack water content is only 40% of normal for the date, and was only 55% of normal the first of April, the time of year when it is historically at its peak.

The state supplies 25 million Californians and about 750,000 acres of irrigated farmland with water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in Northern California. The State Water Project (SWP) is a vast network -- the largest in the country -- of reservoirs, pipelines, aqueducts, and pumping stations that deliver the water to municipalities and irrigation districts throughout California.

The good news is that water reservoir storage is above average, due to an unusually wet winter last year. The SWP's principle reservoir, Lake Oroville in Butte County, is 97% full.

"Reservoir storage will mitigate the impact of dry conditions on water supply this summer, but we have to plan for the possibility of a consecutive dry year in 2013," warned DWR Director Mark Cowin in a statement.

The DWR expects to be able to deliver 60% of the slightly more than 4 million acre-feet of SWP water requested this year, slightly below average allocation. March was also unusually wet, which upped the allocation from 50% in February, which is great news for agriculture, which receives a large majority of the water supply.

Water Awareness month was spurred by the California droughts of 1987-1992. The DWR and the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) banded together to teach the public about water use and conservation. The organizations continue to support the "Save Our Water" campaign.

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