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How does tap water get to the Santa Clarita Valley?

Part 1 of 2

Posted: July 14, 2008 1:26 a.m.
Updated: September 14, 2008 5:04 a.m.

Meadows in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains at the foot of Kettle Rock, like Indian Meadow seen here, serve as natural sponge-like reservoirs. Those meadows are disappearing due to rapidly melting snow that bypasses them.

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Snow falls on the rocky crest of Kettle Rock in Northern California, 500 miles from Santa Clarita.
In this remote and rugged stretch of the Sierra Nevada, carpeted with coniferous trees and skirted with meadows, few hikers ever make it to the 7,300-foot summit or leave their footprints in the snow pack here.

But, this is where our story begins - with a single drop of water, melting from the snow pack atop Kettle Rock.

Our story ends in Santa Clarita Valley, where that same drop of water drips from a tap.

"This is your watershed. This is the state's watershed. This is Santa Clarita's watershed," said a man who has devoted his life to holding back the forces of climate change threatening the state's water supply and the supply of water to Santa Clarita.

"This watershed is the watershed of the State Water Project, there is no other source."

Jim Wilcox is the project manager for the Feather River Coordinated Resource Management team in Plumas County.

For more than two decades, he and others on his team have been working steadily, and quietly, in the tranquil meadows of Plumas County, trying to reverse a disastrous trend in the changing profile of this landscape.

The meadows are disappearing.

Receding snow packs on the peaks in this Sierra Nevada mountain range are creating rapid snow-melts that send torrents of water rushing down the mountain sides, bypassing meadows and deepening trench-like channels on their way to the Feather River.

"The meadows are natural reservoirs," Wilcox explains. "These channels are becoming disconnected from their naturally-evolved flood plains. Spring runoffs now send the water shooting down here, instead of sheeting out slowly across the meadow.

"The water comes flying down here now so fast the channels are deepening," he said. "The water is not spreading out across the flood plain anymore."

Northern California meadows, once lush with willows and cottonwoods, are now being reduced to "cheat grass" and sagebrush.

The meadows act as sponges that serve as natural reservoirs, holding the water in one place.

So, for the last 23 years, Wilcox and his team have been filling in the trenches of water-gauged channels in efforts to keep the water in the meadow.

"We've slowed the water down from 10 feet per second to one foot per second."

Why should Santa Clarita ratepayers care how fast the water moves through the State Water Project?

For that answer, we have to revisit our drop of water on its journey south.

The Oroville Dam & Reservoir
As our drop of water flows out of Plumas County, emerging from the shadow of the towering Sierra Nevadas, it finds its way to Lake Oroville - the man-made reservoir created with construction of the Oroville Dam.

Before it actually gets to the reservoir, however, that drop of water rushing down the Feather River will have pushed the turbines of at least three hydro-electric plants owned and operated by Pacific Gas & Electric.

"This is some of the hardest working water in the state of California, no ifs ands or buts," Wilcox said.

The Oroville Dam, completed in 1968, is the nation's tallest - taller than the Hoover Dam - at 754 feet.
Lake Oroville has the capacity to hold 3,537,580 acre-feet of water.

State water experts, however, are seeing no where near that amount of water in the reservoir this year which, according to their latest snow survey is at less than half of its capacity, and 58 percent of average storage for this time of year.

In May, the 2008 snow survey calculated by the Department of Water Resources showed snow water content to be 67 percent of normal for the date.

Snow depth and water content have declined since April, when statewide snow pack water content figures were just under 100 percent of normal, despite a dry March.

A month later, on June 4, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a statewide drought.

Water storage in California's major reservoirs, he and others have noted, is low largely because of last year's dry conditions.

"If we have another dry year, we're going to be looking at mandatory rationing in a number of areas," Ted Thomas, spokesman for the Department of Water Resources, told The Signal last week.

March and April 2008, based on the snow survey, are now logged as the driest two months in the northern Sierra since 1921, the first year that records were kept.

Water runoff into streams and reservoirs is only 55 to 65 percent of normal.

Our drop of water represents only one of two that would have made its way to Lake Oroville from the mountain top.

"The Sierra Nevadas are crucial to the California water system," said Dave Rizzardo, Chief of the Snow Survey for the Department of Water Resources.

"The snow pack is essentially a frozen reservoir, a time-released mechanism," he told The Signal last week.

"The last two years have been dry which gives us concern," he explained. "Every year that's dry you need to do a little better the following year to recover that water, so it makes next year even more critical."

A great deal of snow went into making our one drop of water headed for Santa Clarita.

On average, 10 inches of snow translates into one inch of water. Heavy, wet snow may contain as much as 16 percent meltwater by volume. A dry, powdery snow may be as little as 1/13 meltwater by volume.

Melting of the snow pack, which typically begins around April when snow on the peaks is built up, Rizzardo said, is now happening earlier in the year due to climate changes.

With back-to-back dry years, an earlier thaw and dwindling snow packs, he said: "You don't have much of a frozen reservoir left."

Regardless of how much or how little water ends up at the Oroville Dam, - despite shrinking frozen snow pack reservoirs and shrinking sponge-like meadow reservoirs - the state-run dam and reservoir, continue to deliver water to communities including Santa Clarita Valley.

These are the same heart and lungs of the State Water Project that began beating a quarter of a century ago.

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