Dry and getting drier

Last summer, the water level in Lake Oroville dropped dramatically. It’s not expected to be any higher this year.

Last summer, the water level in Lake Oroville dropped dramatically. It’s not expected to be any higher this year.

file photo by Meredith J. Cooper

About the drought:
For more on the drought in our region, as well as links to individual districts and ways to conserve and report water waste, log onto www.buttecounty.net/drought.

Everybody knows we’re in a drought. But, particularly during a week when rain’s been falling, that fact can become lost on many of us. So, just how bad is it?

Well, Lake Oroville is at 51 percent of capacity and precipitation is hovering at about 31.7 inches this water year (which runs Nov. 1-Oct. 31). That’s just about where we were last year at this time—actually a bit better. What’s worse, however, is the snow pack, which recharges the rivers and reservoirs when it melts in the spring. Right now, it’s about 6 percent of normal for the Sierras.

“That’s well below [where we were in] ’76-’77, and below last year,” said Christina Buck, water resources scientist for Butte County’s Water and Resource Conservation Department. The 1976-77 water year was the driest on record. Last year came in a close second.

Buck was speaking at the quarterly meeting of the Butte County Drought Task Force Monday (April 6). The group, made up of representatives from agriculture, county Environmental Health and Emergency Services departments and the county Water Commission, meets to discuss water issues and propose recommendations on county policy.

Given that we’re in the fourth drought year—and the second “critical” one—those in attendance Monday were most concerned about groundwater levels and pumping; Department of Water Resources allotments, which are expected to be less than usual; and how to encourage water conservation.

“We know we’re not doing the worst. That’s Tulare County, where 1,000 wells have run dry,” said Paul Gosselin, director of the Water and Resource Conservation Department.

But Vickie Newlin, also from Gosselin’s office, warned of the probability that water allotments, which were 100 percent of normal last year in Butte County, could drop to as low as 50 percent. That likely will include water districts in neighboring counties as well. With less water from the state, people “will pump groundwater for their needs,” Newlin said.

She followed that with the announcement that all of the districts in Butte County have agreed to discontinue the practice of transferring unused water elsewhere, should allotments be curtailed. That’s despite the reservoir levels in Southern California—last year they were near 100 percent of average capacity but this year they’re closer to 40 percent—which put water in high demand.

When it comes to agriculture, the largest user of water in our region, more and more farmers are looking to install wells, said Brad Banner, the county’s Environmental Health director. “I’m hearing that there’s about a six-month wait,” he said, between getting a permit to drill a well and when a drilling company can do the work.

For private homeowners, however, the wait isn’t quite so long, Newlin added.

A subject on everyone’s mind Monday was the recent state regulations aimed at urban water users, particularly the one regarding lawn watering. It really only affects those living in urban areas such as Chico, Oroville and Paradise, but the task force agreed to recommend education encouraging all county residents to limit watering their lawn in order to conserve.

Task force members also discussed ways the county can set an example for residents. There is a form on the county’s drought website so citizens can alert officials to water waste on county property, said Casey Hatcher, principal management analyst for Butte County. The website is a bit outdated, in that it references 2014 instead of 2015, but it still contains valuable links to local district sites and state regulations. The reporting form can be found by hovering over “2014 Drought” at the top of the page and choosing “Report Water Waste” from the drop-down menu.

The county even wants to take that a step further.

“We’re thinking about what symbolic messages the county can send [to residents],” said Sang Kim, deputy county administrator. “Even though we’re not required, we want to make some voluntary efforts.”