This year marks the 40th Anniversary of the “Miracle on Ice,” one of the biggest upsets in history when the United States hockey team beat the USSR in the semi-final game of the 1980 Winter Olympics. Anyone who watched the Olympics live or saw the 2004 movie Miracle remembers Al Michaels yelling “Do you believe in miracles?” at the end of the game as the Americans won.
Californians may be hoping and yelling for their own miracle this March due to the state’s own record-breaking statistic: little to no rainfall to start 2020. After just emerging from a statewide drought, drought conditions are now accounted for in 23 percent of the state, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
And San Francisco and Sacramento just completed a rare feat: no precipitation in February, breaking a 156 year old record for the City by the Bay.
The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) said the California snowpack is estimated at 47 percent of the average for March during their third snowpack measurement on Feb. 27, 2020.
DWR usually conducts a monthly manual snowpack measurement survey from January through May, depending on snow, to help forecast spring runoff. DWR also conducts technical measurements of the snowpack. They stick a bunch of rods in the ground in front of the cameras and call it a day.
Water policy experts like to throw out a trick question: what is the biggest reservoir in California? Technically there are three answers: depending on the amount, California’s snowpack is the largest “reservoir.” Melting snow provides much-needed reservoir and river inflows in the drier spring, summer, and fall months.
A healthy spring runoff can provide up to 30 percent of California water supplies as it melts into streams, reservoirs, and groundwater. The other two answers are Lake Shasta, which is run by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and Oroville reservoir, run by DWR.
With the snowpack sitting at half full, California reservoirs may not get abundant inflows that were common in the past few years. Overall, state and federal reservoirs are in good shape. Shasta and Oroville are sitting at 78 percent and 64 percent of capacity, respectively, and register just above or below 100 percent of their historical average capacity.
It’s also worth noting that the Federal Emergency Management Agency just agreed to pay a larger amount, up to $750 million, of the repaired Oroville Dam spillways, which were rebuilt over the last two years due to the partial erosion of Oroville Dam’s main spillway in February 2017.
Other reservoirs above one million acre-feet include Trinity Lake, New Melones Lake, and Don Pedro Reservoir are at 80 percent of capacity and well above their historical averages. Other reservoirs like Anderson Dam are not faring as well.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the federal agency in charge of regulating hydroelectric dams in the United States, ordered the draining of Anderson Reservoir by Oct. 1, 2020 due to the risk of the dam failing from a large earthquake and flooding Silicon Valley.
Anderson Reservoir has a maximum capacity of 90,000 acre-feet. In the water storage world, it’s a small facility. The Santa Clara Valley Water District, the reservoir and dam owner, shared that repairs to retrofit the dam against such an event has been underway. Losing the water won’t really impact anyone, but it’s nice to have all the water possible with a looming drought.
Search ‘Miracle March’ with ‘California’ online and countless articles about the miraculous amount of snowfall and precipitation that falls in March will pop up. Remember the 2019 deluge in March and April that brought the state snowpack to 161 percent of average? Or how about 2017 when California officially jumped out the year’s long drought with a 161 percent of average snowpack.
Water experts look to 1991 as one of the most infamous years of ‘Miracle March.’ That year, the northern Sierra Nevada snowpack skyrocketed from 15 percent to 73 percent of average in March alone. As we pointed out earlier, a larger snowpack means more water in the dry spring, summer, and fall months.
Are we headed for another ‘Miracle March’ or a drought? It is up for debate. California is off to a good start for ‘Miracle March’ though. A foot of snow blanketed the Sierra Nevada mountains on the first weekend of the month. And as of this writing, the weather forecast says it will rain all next week in northern California.
Who knows, but maybe by the end of March, we’ll look up at the sky and say, “Do you believe in miracles?”
Evan Harris is the media relations and outreach coordinator at PRI.