ECHO SUMMIT — It's official, and it's not good news for thirsty Californians: January and February have been the driest on record.
The monthly snow survey, anticipated by farmers and municipalities who depend on snowmelt to supplement water supplies, showed Thursday what everyone has known: despite a few good dumps the state hasn't received the kind of major storms needed to ease water managers' worries.
"It's disappointing, but not really a surprise," said Frank Gehrke, who as head of California's cooperative snow survey program takes manual measurements once a month near Echo Summit in El Dorado County to supplement electronic monitoring.
Gehrke measured 29 inches of snow with a water content of 13.4 inches. The dismal numbers still are twice as much as what was on the ground at this time last year, he said.
There is potentially good news coming by the middle of next week when the National Weather Service forecasts a sizeable storm that could bring more than two-feet of snow across the northern and southern Sierra and up to three-quarters of an inch of rain to the valley.
"The system we're tracking looks fairly potent," said meteorologist Drew Peterson. "It will really help the snowpack and help alleviate the dry start to the calendar year."
Historically about 15 percent of the state's annual precipitation falls in March. Gehrke measured the moisture content of the snowpack at 57 percent of average for the season that ends April 1.
California's Sierra Nevada snowpack provides about one-third of the water used in the state as it melts to fill reservoirs and rivers and replenish aquifers. Water is then delivered from the water-rich north through a system of state and federal canals that have turned arid southern deserts into thriving cities and rich farmland.
Southern California water users have been told to expect 40 percent of their allocation based on current measurements.
Already some of the state's most prolific Central California farmers have been told they're on target to receive just one quarter of their standard allotment, in part because of the lack of precipitation and in part because siphoning water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta has become more challenging to protect a protected smelt.
Thursday's bad news comes as Gov. Jerry Brown's administration pushes a $23-billion plan they say would improve water deliveries to the south by sending it through tunnels under the Delta. Environmentalists argue the only way to save the ecosystem of the Delta, a vast freshwater marshland where rivers from the Cascades, Sierra Nevada and Coast ranges converge and empty into the San Francisco Bay, is to pump less water from it.
The San Luis Reservoir in the Diablos west of Los Banos is the key Delta storage reservoir for Central and Southern California users but is filled to less than 70 percent of what's normal for this date because of pumping restrictions that were triggered in January and February when an increasing number of smelt were killed by the pumps.
Rain storms in November and December created muddy water through the Delta, pushing smelt into the interior, said Maury Roos, chief hydrologist with the state Department of Water Resources.