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Rainfall levels remain low as dry season approaches

Below-average precipitation sets us potential for long-term drought, hydrologist warns

Thursday marked the first day of spring, and the rainy season is quickly coming to a close and rainfall in the Bay Area has been far below normal for this time of year, potentially setting up a long-term drought for California, a National Weather Service hydrologist said.

So far rainfall records are the some of the lowest on record dating back to the 19th century, weather service hydrologist Mark Strudley said.

Water levels are low all over California, Strudley said, snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains is only at 20-30% of average and reservoirs all over the state are at dangerously low levels.

Despite some storms that have rolled through the state in February and March, the weather has remained unseasonably dry for much of the winter with the driest months quickly approaching.

"March and April can be wet but they're typically not the heaviest rainfall months," Strudley said.

He said that while it looks like there may be some rainfall toward the end of March, the "climatic outlooks are putting us in a continued dry spot."

Recorded rainfall in downtown San Francisco is currently at its third lowest since 1853, Strudley said, with 8.24 inches of rainfall recorded since October. The least rainfall recorded in the period between October and September was 8.14 inches.

However, Strudley warned that the statistics can't tell the whole story.

Many areas of the North Bay have local reservoirs that are more vulnerable to variations in rainfall levels than areas that bring water in from the mountains or the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

"Locally-fed places are not faring terribly well," Strudley said. "Water sources from Delta and Sierras are a bit more resilient because they have this statewide supply coming in."

But while state reserves aren't likely to run out this year, officials are already looking toward next year.

"I think the main concern that a lot of water managers are dealing with now is what's going to happen next year," Strudley said. "What's really going to hurt the state in a huge, huge way is if we get another drought next year."

While Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought state of emergency in January and asked Californians to voluntarily reduce water consumption by 20%, Strudley said that more mandatory and voluntary water cutbacks can be expected.

Next year is really going to be the test," he said. "That's where we're going to have nothing left to fall back on."

— Bay City News Service

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