Some Drought Relief as Folsom Lake Fills, Despite Dry Week

Folsom Lake (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)
Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press

Powerful rainstorms brought on by the record Pacific El Niño have succeeded in filling up California’s largest reservoirs, including Folsom Lake, but it may not be enough to pull the state out of what is quickly shaping up to be a fifth year of devastating drought.

On Friday, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced it would increase water releases from Folsom Lake for purposes of flood control, according to the Sacramento Bee.

The move is in line with federal guidelines that reportedly state that water in the reservoir cannot be at a level higher than 577,000 acre-feet in early February; as of Friday, the water level sat at 581,000 acre-feet.

While the water level at Folsom is still well below its full capacity of 977,000 acre-feet, Reclamation announced it would increase water releases from 800 cubic feet per second to 1,750 cubic feet per second, according to the Bee. The announcement marks a stark turnaround from January of last year, when local officials ordered all boats removed from Folsom Lake due to abnormally low water levels.

Still, while California cautiously accepts the good news out of Folsom, there remains no easy end in sight for the state’s punishing drought. While rainstorms and Sierra snow runoff have succeeded in raising the levels at Folsom Lake, other state reservoirs remain frustratingly low, even as the El Niño has done its best to fill them.

Water levels at Lake Oroville — the state’s second-largest reservoir after Lake Shasta — rose a dramatic 20 feet over a six-day period last month, but the lake still sits roughly 200 feet below its full capacity. An aerial video released in February of last year reveals the extent of the damage that drought has inflicted on the state’s largest reservoirs.

Optimistic Californians are looking to the snowpack levels in the Sierra Nevada mountains for a sign that the state’s water woes are over, and the early returns are encouraging: as of Friday, the snowpack level measured 110 percent of average for this time of year, a critical development for a state that receives roughly 30 percent of its annual water supply from snowpack runoff. However, the snowpack must measure 150 percent of average on April 1, when it typically peaks, for the drought to be considered officially ended.

Meteorologists and climatologists remain hopeful that the El Niño — reportedly the strongest event of its kind since at least 1950 — will continue to unleash powerful storms that will add to the state’s reservoirs and the snowpack. Last month, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory climatologist Bill Patzert told the Los Angeles Times that storms seen in California in early January were just “a trailer for the movie,” and that more are on the way.

But National Weather Service forecasters predict warm, dry conditions for Northern California over at least much of the next week, and temperatures in San Diego on Super Bowl Sunday were 13 degrees higher than average in some areas. According to Bloomberg, the warm ocean surface temperatures that define El Niño peaked in early January, and the weather pattern is expected to decline in intensity through February and March.

Still, Patzert told the Times he remains optimistic: “This thing is getting ready to have a second peak. I think El Niño will live up to its hype, but you have to be patient.”

One group of Californians holding their collective breath are the state’s farmers, who have endured devastating losses of fertile soil due to the drought. Last month, several water districts warned that farmers would not receive their allotted water for a third consecutive year.


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