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KERN RIVER IN THIRD DRIEST YEAR SINCE 1893 AND AN ARID WINTER LOOMS - 2013/07/12 08:03 SOURCE: http://www.bakersfieldcalifornian.com/local/x2042020506/Kern-River-in-third-driest-year-since-1893- and-an-arid-winter-looms
Bakersfield Californian: Thursday, Jul 11 2013 05:47 PM
BY THEO DOUGLAS Californian staff writer tdouglas@bakersfield.com

Due to historically low levels of melting snow, the Kern River watershed is experiencing its third driest year in more than a century.

Snowmelt runoff levels in the Kern for 2013 are at 21 percent of a 100 percent runoff, a measurement that ties with the Depression-era year of 1931, according to Bakersfield Water Resources Manager Art Chianello.

The city began keeping records of water levels 120 years ago, in 1893.

Two years are considered to be the watershed's second driest: 1924 and 1977. During each of those years, the Kern yielded 20 percent of a 100 percent snowmelt runoff.

And the driest year is 1961, when the Kern system had just 19 percent of a 100 percent snowmelt runoff.

These figures reflect the "total snowmelt runoff" in the Kern River, measured during snowmelt season -- April 1 through July 31, Chianello said.

"According to our (city) hydrologist John Ryan, we're at 21.8 percent" of snowmelt runoff, Chianello said.

For the 2013 snowmelt season, the Kern River is delivering 101,700 acre-feet of runoff, Chianello said, adding that during a 100 percent year, the river would deliver more than 467,000 acre-feet.

One acre-foot is 325,850 gallons of water, or enough water to cover a football field at one foot deep.

Snowmelt can vary dramatically year to year, depending upon snow levels in the Sierra Nevada.

In 2011, a wet winter gave the river 943,000 acre-feet of snowmelt runoff, or a 201 percent level, Chianello said. An "average" year might deliver a 75 percent, he said.

Six months into 2013, the year's meager water yield is not expected to improve.

"I don't see that 21 percent changing at all. I think, usually, we receive the maximum from our storms in our snowpack," Chianello said. "That usually occurs in the winter, and around April of every year, the snow starts to melt and produce liquid water for us, which we then put in storage."

Now, in July, Chianello said, the snowpack is nearly gone, and we've gotten all the runoff we're likely to get.

"I think there could be a slim chance of some thunderstorms later this year, in November and December, and that could give us some runoff," Chianello said. "That might not improve things very much, but every little bit helps."

Such a small amount of runoff is an arid benchmark that Mayor Harvey Hall noted in his recent State of the City remarks.

"We hope that one year, we're going to have a large snowfall ... so that one year we can once again have water in the Kern River," Hall said, pronouncing the situation "tragic."

"That's the lowest it's been in several years," the mayor said. "We hope to have more snow to bring you more river water."

A representative of the California Water Institute at California State University Fresno said he believes Bakersfield will have a dry, but not impossibly parched, year.

The real losers, according to Project Director Sarge Green, are in agriculture - both growers and employees and Southern California agencies that import northern water.

"Cities will do fine. We don't sip as much" water, Green said, noting that residents frequently can use less water without conservation having a dire impact on their lives.

"The real impact the drought has is on small, rural communities. Employment will be down if agriculture isn't doing well," Green said. Rural residents also may experience personal wells running dry, he said.

This year's drought could have an effect into 2014. Green said growers may face decreased water allotments early next year -- before the new, winter snowpack has a chance to melt and as a result, their crops may suffer, threatening their livelihood.

"Zero (allotments are) the worst case, but it will depend on how much (the Sacramento River) can pump during the summer months, and how much rainfall they get to fill Shasta Lake in the late fall and early winter," Green said. "We'll have a chance to get some water back."

If growers do receive zero water allotments, Green said, it would be a disaster for some.

"(Growers) applied for their crop financing in the fall. If San Luis Reservoir is empty, banks are going to be balking at lending to people who are leveraged," Green said. "Either some people are not going to get financed, or they're going to be out of business. That's going to be a big problem."

San Luis Reservoir, an artificial lake in Merced County, provides water to state and federal water contractors -- who then sell it to farmers. Green said it was reported to be holding just 448,667 acre-feet, or 22 percent of its total capacity, on June 27.

While the levels of snowmelt in the Kern system are at historic lows, the city of Bakersfield's actual rainfall levels are slightly higher.

Based on its records, which date to the late 19th century, the National Weather Service says 2013 is only Bakersfield's eighth driest year on record, with just 3.15 inches of seasonal rainfall. A normal level would be 6.47 inches.

"We're coming in a good 3 inches below normal for the season, and a good 2 inches below normal since Jan. 1, and our deficit continues to grow. What we need is a widespread, wetting rain," said Kevin Durfee, a meteorologist in the agency's Hanford office, adding that three of Bakersfield's eight driest years have occurred since 2006.

"A lot of that could be attributed to global warming. There is nothing etched in stone on that, but that's one theory," Durfee said. "At least when we go back to this past year, we were basically in a neutral (weather pattern), without anything El Nino or La Nina."

Durfee said forecasts predict a dry winter this year in the southeastern United States which typically means more dry weather in Bakersfield.

"Things are looking rather bleak for us to have an overly wet winter. A dry year in the southeast ... would indicate that you won't have that active southern branch of the jetstream, and we probably won't have an El Nino," Durfee said.

Perhaps the best news, Durfee said, is that with winter's start more than five months away, "These things can change."
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