Water & Drought

March 14, 2017 4:20 PM

These before and after images show storms' impact on Valley reservoirs

The impact of this winter’s storms can be seen in these side-by-side satellite photos of San Luis Reservoir near Los Banos taken in the depths of the drought 2014 (left) and earlier this year.

For a while, it seemed as though California’s five-year drought would never lift. But thanks to the winter’s deluge of rain and a record-setting snowpack, the San Joaquin Valley’s reservoirs and lakes are brimming with water.

It may seem hard to imagine, but it was just three years ago that the San Luis Reservoir in Merced County reached its lowest point in years. The sides of the man-made lake were dry and etched like rings in a bathtub. It was, perhaps, one of the most visible reminders of how little water there was. Fast forward to now and the San Luis Reservoir is swollen with water. It has reached 99 percent of its 2.4 million-acre-foot capacity.

“What we put in there today, we will have for tomorrow,” said Doug Carlson, spokesman for the California Department of Water Resources. “We are fortunate to have that water.”

Elsewhere in the Valley, the song is the same. Reservoirs are nearing capacity and operators have been releasing water from Friant and Pine Flat dams in Fresno County to make room for an expected torrent of snow runoff.

Although farmers and irrigation district officials lament the loss of water, saying more dam storage is necessary, there is currently no other option but to release water into the San Joaquin and Kings rivers. What water officials are concerned about is the massive snowpack in the Sierra that is 179 percent of normal. Three years ago, that snowpack was a paltry 30 percent of normal.

As warmer weather approaches, the snow will begin to melt and pour into Valley reservoirs. Jeromy Caldwell, Pine Flat Lake park manager, estimated that dam’s capacity will reach its limit by the end of June. Pine Flat Dam can hold 1 million acre-feet of water and it currently has 701,387 acre-feet in storage.

“We are going down about a foot and a half a day,” Caldwell said. “And we are still at about 70 percent of capacity.”

As of Tuesday, Friant Dam stood at 55 percent capacity with 286,000 acre-feet of water. The dam can hold 520,000 acre-feet of water. In 2014, the drought dried down the dam’s capacity to just 170,000 acre-feet, or 32 percent of capacity. Louis Moore, spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said the hefty snowpack is like money in the bank for water users that include agriculture, irrigation districts and cities.

“Once we start getting the runoff from the snowmelt that is where we are going to get the biggest bang for our buck,” said Moore.

The Valley’s reservoirs also benefited from record rainfall. Fresno’s normal rainfall to this point in the season averages a stingy 8.63 inches, but through mid-March the region has recorded 12.87 inches. That was more than three times the amount Fresno received through this time in 2014.

Robert Rodriguez: 559-441-6327, @FresnoBeeBob

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