California water data shows change for typically drier months ahead

California and other parts of the U.S. West have suffered through dry drought conditions in recent years, wreaking havoc on farming and causing concern for the future among officials. Now, after data on water levels released by California’s Department of Water Resources shows strong water levels across the state, reservoirs may be able to get typically drier parts of the country through what has been a difficult season historically. 

California’s warm and dry summers mimic the Mediterranean’s climate in some areas more than the climate found in much of the United States — and of course California’s northern and southern halves have their own distinctions when it comes to climate in that large state. 

Water reclamation officials in California routinely deal with an environment where a large portion of the state’s precipitation — an average of 75% each year — falls in the weeks and months between November and March. That precipitation is made up of rain, snow and hail. 

As the winter begins to end, time will tell if weather forecasts show more support for keeping the state’s reservoir levels elevated as they are now, according to data released on Feb. 29. 

State officials with the California Data Exchange Center released level charts for at least 18 reservoir localities across the state, including for McClure, Castaic, Casitas, Cachuma, Don Pedro, New Melones, Sonoma, Trinity, Camanche, Folsom, New Bullards Bar, Oroville, San Luis and Shasta. All of those localities appeared to have water levels which had improved.

The news is good for groves in wine country between Napa and Sacramento in the state’s north. 

It’s a promising sign that the aquifer system — which is divided into the Sacramento Valley, the Sacramento San Joaquin Delta and the San Joaquin Valley regions — will have healthy surface-water basins. 

Water is vital for California’s Central Valley, known as one of the most important agricultural areas globally. 

California’s aqueduct is critical to the state’s agriculture and life. Fourteen pumps pull or lift water to an altitude of almost 2,000 feet over mountains, after which the water is split into two aqueducts that hydrate Southern California. 

The West Branch Aqueduct water is held in storage in Castaic Lake and Pyramid Lake, from which it is distributed to the Los Angeles metro area. 

The East Branch Aqueduct runs through Lancaster and Palmdale, and water from it is stored in Silverwood Lake and Lake Perris, from which it is distributed to Inland Empire cities that include San Bernardino and Riverside. 

The healthy water levels aren’t all good news, though. There is a chance that as the spring and summer approach and snow melts in the mountains, partly unforeseen weather conditions ahead could cause flooding — say, for example, if storms hit the state in March. 

That’s why California authorities have opened spillways at various dams multiple times this year, to release water which is then recaptured downstream in flood-mitigation operations. 

In early February, eight California counties were put under a state of emergency as an atmospheric river caused flooding throughout heavily populated areas of Southern California. The storm system also brought heavy rain and damaging winds to the Bay Area.

Then later in the same month, nearly all of California was up against more adverse weather as another storm brought heavy rain to much of the state, with heavy snowfall in higher elevations. Forecasters have already warned of possible flooding, hail and tornadoes in parts of the state as storms hit in just about every quarter of the month of February.

In late 2023, motorists became stranded in vehicles on flooded roadways in what is normally an idyllic Santa Barbara, while nearby Oxnard got a month’s worth of rain in a single hour in a storm that pummeled Southern California while Christmas travel was underway.

And last spring, just as a drought in the state was improving, flooding then brought more issues, devastating farming communities.