After a promising start to the 2019-20 winter season, with record snowfall in the Sierras in December, most Pacific storms have since skipped California, leaving much of the state with below normal precipitation.
Indeed, by the end of January, the Sierra snowpack was down to a mere 70 percent of normal. As a result, the Department of Water Resources has committed to delivering only 15 percent of the water that San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District and other agencies would normally have available to purchase through the State Water Project.
This is significant because the State Water Project provides close to 30 percent of the water that San Bernardino Valley water agencies need for their business and residential customers. The remaining 70 percent of water supplies comes from local rainfall and mountain runoff. But that, too, is below normal so far this winter.
Of course, conditions can change quickly across California, particularly if we experience a wet March and April. Upcoming surveys of the Sierra snowpack over the next two months will give state officials a better read on how much snowmelt will ultimately be available for water agencies across the state.
“The reality is that forecasters do not really know what is going to happen this winter,” said Bob Tincher, Valley District’s deputy general manager of resources.
Indeed, two years ago, weather forecasters trumpeted predictions that California was going to have a wet winter. But the storms failed to materialize.
Then, a year later, the winter of 2018-19 was initially predicted to be an average year, but turned out to be one of the wettest on record in the northern part of the state. Inland Empire precipitation levels have continued below normal, continuing a dry cycle that has lasted close to two decades.
The good news, Tincher said, is that Valley District and its agency partners imported a record 78,478 acre-feet of State Water Project water into the San Bernardino Valley last year. That is the most Northern California water that has been imported into the Inland Empire since the State Water Project pipeline began making water deliveries into San Bernardino in 1972.
About 61,000 acre-feet of last year’s State Water Project imports were used for groundwater recharge, replacing water that agencies had previously pumped to serve their customers. The remaining 17,000 acre feet of State Water Project imports were used for direct deliveries to East Valley Water District in Highland, the city of Redlands, West Valley Water District in Rialto, and Yucaipa Valley Water District, which has customers in Yucaipa and Calimesa.
“Direct deliveries of State Water Project water are a good thing,” Tincher said, “because water we deliver directly is water that agencies do not have to pump out of the ground.”
Inland Empire water agencies meet regularly to coordinate their groundwater pumping and recharge, as well as their purchases from the State Water Project. They also share information and statistics about their local water demands and sources of supply, laying out their projections for future demand and the sources of water they anticipate using to meet this demand.
Valley District and 13 other agencies coordinate their water management efforts through the Upper Santa Ana Watershed Integrated Water Management Plan. The Plan is a comprehensive water resources strategy that helps agencies ensure they can provide reliable water supplies for the San Bernardino, Yucaipa, and Big Bear Valleys as well as the San Gorgonio Pass areas. The plan covers cities and communities across the San Bernardino Valley as well as a large portion of the San Bernardino National Forest. The plan is implemented by the Basin Technical Advisory Committee – known as the BTAC - which is comprised of staff members from 14 local agencies.
“We work together on everything from water resource planning to coordinating our purchases from the State Water Project to ensure that we have enough water to meet local demands,” Tincher said.