California survey finds Sierra snowpack far below normal

SACRAMENTO — California received a double dose of bad drought news on Tuesday, with state officials saying the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada is far below normal and that residents again aren't coming close to meeting Gov. Jerry Brown's call for a 20 percent cut in water use.

Snow supplies about a third of the state's water and a higher winter snowpack translates to more water in California reservoirs to meet demand in summer and fall. Last weekend's Sierra snowfall pleased skiers and snowboarders but wasn't nearly enough to offset weeks of dry weather.

The latest survey makes it likely California's drought will run through a fourth year. Brown declared a drought emergency on Jan. 17, 2014, and his office continues to underline the need for sustained water conservation.

Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program, said there were 6.7 inches of snow on the ground at the survey spot near Echo Summit, about 90 miles east of Sacramento.

"It's very meager and it is clearly flirting with being the lowest on record," he said.

The survey found a snowpack water equivalent of just 0.9 inches. During the last snow survey on Jan. 29 there was a water equivalent of 2.3 inches in the same spot.

Unless this month approximates the 1991 "Miracle March" with significantly more precipitation than normal, the traditional wet season will end on April 1 with an alarmingly low total.

"There is no reason to think we will have such a good March again this year," Gehrke said.

Meanwhile, a new report showed state water conservation slipping from December when Californians cut water use by 22 percent. Urban water use in January declined by only 9 percent compared to the same month in 2013, according to the State Water Resources Control Board.

January was unseasonably dry and brought no measurable rainfall in downtown San Francisco for the first time in history. Overall water use stayed flat compared to the rainy December.

The water board report showed conservation varied widely across the state, with communities in the South Coast area scaling back 9 percent and the San Francisco Bay Area by just 4 percent.

The monthly data helps officials monitor the effectiveness of the state's emergency conservation regulations, which include a ban on washing cars using hoses that do not have a shut-off valve and restrictions on watering lawns. Later this month the board will consider extending and expanding these regulations.

"It's hard to sustain a sense of urgency and emergency for a longer period of time, but unfortunately we don't have a choice," water board scientist Max Gomberg said at an agency meeting Tuesday. "We have to redouble the (conservation) effort."


Associated Press writer Kristin Bender reported from San Francisco.

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